By Loie Hayward
A few days after my father died in 2002, an earnest contingent of Dysart history buffs came to visit. They got right to the point: what, they wanted to know, was going to happen to the old round brick barn now that Searl was gone?
The Barn (even though there was another barn—conventional, wooden, white—on the farm, we always knew which one deserved the capital letters)—The Barn, built by my grandfather in 1917, was a local landmark. People gave directions citing its location. It had appeared in books and calendars. A picture of it made the front page of the Waterloo Courier after a tornado blew off the roof in 1960. It was sketched, painted, photographed by a singular array of high school art classes, confused tourists who’d made a wrong turn, and little old ladies trying to channel Grandma Moses. It was truly noteworthy, this Barn.
Really now, was I planning to tear it down? asked the people from Dysart. If so, maybe they could buy it instead, or rent it, or make some sort of arcane legal arrangement (with 100 years in the title) which I didn’t understand. Really, something needed to be done—it must be preserved.
Actually, at that point I hadn’t given The Barn and its future much thought. I had grown up with it, it had always just been there—a solid, unchangeable haven for my childhood dreams and desires, a mysterious anchor of my adulthood. Even though I’d not lived on the farm for 40 years, I’d just assumed that The Barn, apparently through some magical process, would continue to be there. But now, suddenly, I owned the thing outright—and I had to make decisions about it, decisions, it seemed, of a rather permanent sort. Hmm, I thought. Then, Whoa there! Then without hesitation, “No, I have no intention of tearing it down,” I said.
Later my sister said she thought the arcane legal arrangement was a good idea, that I should sell the patch of land The Barn rested on to the Dysart historians and let them worry about it. “Are you crazy!” I said, a bit too loudly—which indicated to me that perhaps somewhere back in the foggy recesses of my being I’d given the matter more thought than I’d realized. At any rate, then and there my role as the Custodian (with a capital “C”) of The Barn was cemented for all time (or at least until I croaked).
Still, I continued to live in California where my custodial duties were performed with a rather laissez-faire, “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” attitude. Except for the day a co-worker at the office came waltzing by my cubicle, chortling away, “Hey, I saw your barn on the internet! Heyo, neato!” My jaw dropped. What the—! I thought. How the heck did The Barn get on the internet? Yeah, I knew I should be joyfully riding the burgeoning technological wave into the 21st Century, but even so….
Then I retired. And began to return to the farm in the summer to take stock, roll up my sleeves, and well…you know…take charge. Needless to say, the learning curve was steep—especially when I finally realized I was long on vision and short on know-how. But I blindly flung myself into the whole endeavor nonetheless. Starting cautiously, I took down a few trees here, uprooted some bushes there. I stood back and viewed my work. It was thrilling. “Wow, that actually looks good.” I said. Inspired, I took down a couple buildings—one, due to snow storm collapse, the other, massive dry rot and raccoon mayhem. I cleaned up tons (it seemed) of ancient junk strewn around the farm, often in places I didn’t even know existed. And to top it off, I merrily put in a garden big enough to feed half the known world—a mistake for someone who would come to embrace the “lazy” part of retirement with such gusto.
As time went on, though, The Barn (or The Damned Barn, as I began to think of it) seemed to follow me all over the farm, lodging in the corner of my eye like a mote the size of a boulder. It was definitely just always there, as it had been, but in my mind’s eye it was growing increasingly weighty. I began to notice things. Like the things that were falling off: a board here, some shingles there, the strange whatchamacallit way up top. Every window in the place was broken or missing. The doors were falling apart, with their steel frames so contorted and rusting away they looked like a failed art project by Jackson Pollock. Birds were building fashionable little condominiums in the holes in the bricks. The roof had taken on a wavy, rolling aspect which made me dizzy. One day I was standing inside The Barn during a rain storm and had to unfurl my fancy-dancy Monet at Giverny umbrella to divert the deluge.
A few weeks later, my cousin’s grandson David arrived to help with the Great Excavation—clearing out years and years’ worth of “stuff” that had filled The Barn to the rafters after (and sometimes before) my father and uncle quit farming in 1979. Amid the usual piles of moldy lumber, feed sacks, empty bottles of hog wormer, mysteriously compelling machine parts, were some discoveries. “Hey, look at this,” David would yell. Huh, a medicine cabinet I remembered from the bathroom 55 years ago. And this. My grandmother’s side saddle, surely turn-of-the-century (last century, that is). Then, “What could this be?” he asked, scratching his head. Well, what else could it be, a float for the Dysart 4th of July Parade. After all, what are barns for?
This continued for a couple days until the burn pile outside had reached towering inferno proportions, and we’d dug down to the floor where crumbling mounds of petrified raccoon poop lay moldering (probably dating back to the Jurassic Period). But the real astounding discovery awaited us upstairs in the haymow, classic scene of childhood shenanigans, both naughty and uproarious. Oh my! Surprise, surprise, of the “my-god-what-were-they-thinking” variety. Apparently, when the 1960 tornado blew off the roof, whatever debris that had fallen in—in fact, a good part of the old roof—was just left there (for all posterity, I guess), and the new lower roof was built over it. The massive piles of rubble were impressive. But even more impressive was the mountain of ground corn cobs, probably once used for bedding, now sitting there all warm and damp and mildewy, just waiting. Spontaneous combustion immediately came to mind. Yes, spontaneous to the umpteenth degree. So why hadn’t it yet exploded?
But, I still lived most of the year in California, apparently deaf to the siren call of creative agriculture. That is, until the day in 2012 when I surveyed the economic Armageddon that is San Francisco, saw the writing (graffiti) on the wall, and made the biggest decision of all—bailout. Of course, some of my friends decided I’d really slipped a cog this time, and maybe I had, but not because I was moving back to the farm after almost 50 years. When the black and white moving van (“Mooving,” as they called it) pulled into the yard, I noted the picture of a peppy cow (Holstein, I think) emblazoned on the side. Could this be a sign?
So here I was, cast adrift in the Heartland, feeling at sea among 135 boxes, surrounded by the echoes of a life I once thought I’d left behind. Well, okay, what’s next, I wondered.
And there it was, straight out the window, as it had always been—The Barn, even more ragged and run-down and weather-beaten than it had been the year before. “It would be a project, all right,” a neighbor would say whenever I’d see him. “Yeah, fixing up that barn would be one helluva project. It really, really would.”
And so it was. Restoration completed—2014,
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