I’ve got barns on my mind. I’m driving across Illinois on 88 West. This is corn country. On this bright sunny afternoon, there’s a lot of amber waving going on. The fields run from the edge of the road to the horizon. Amidst clusters of trees far into the countryside, barns. Farms with enough shade to keep a farm family cool in the middle of summer. It’s 130 miles to the Iowa border, where we’ll see more barns. Here we pass what seems like hundreds of them.
Raised in a one-stoplight farm town, I’m keen on barns. My paternal grandfather had a barn. My brother and I climbed up into the hay mow, we stood next to him when he sat beside a cow and milked it. He invited us to pull its udders. We inhaled the sweet scent of milk and hay and manure. A sensory overload like that gets imprinted on your memory, indelibly.
A few months ago I drove by my grandparents’ old farm. The house is gone. The barn is gone. The driveway, lined with tall leafy maple trees, is still there and leads to the back of the lot, where there is a junior barn. It’s red, which is a nice gesture. It’s a pole barn, a modern structure, more garage than barn. Behind it, at the edge of what used to be pasture for my grandfather’s six cows, is the back (and only) nine holes of The Ridge Golf Course. On their Facebook page these amenities are announced: “We offer a driving range and golfing with pull carts and gas carts. Cash and check only! Tentative ho.” I’m not sure about the “tentative ho,” what “ho” is coming, when it will get there. These days every town, even a small farm town like Breckenridge, needs a golf course.
In the 70’s I drove down US 23 to university and back, passing a couple barns that served as palettes. Around Fenton an art professor named Doug Tyler painted murals on the side of barns. One I remember was the image of Raphael’s Castiglione. I’m pretty sure on another barn there was a Mona Lisa. What I didn’t get then, but understand now, was that barns were evolving. By that I mean emptying. Georgia O’Keefe spent summers with her husband in upstate New York and, departing from her paintings of flowers, depicted barns. Ends of Barns these paintings are called. She saw something iconic in them. I wonder if she saw also their coming obsolescence.
A few summers ago we attended a wedding in northern Michigan, with a reception in a barn. Wedding barns, I guess, are becoming a thing. It was cold that night. The wind blew through the cracks in the siding. But you had to think, Of course, the ideal place for a party. We had a barn dance. It was a great party, a regular barn burner. When I was a kid I imagined some day I would have a roll in the hay, enjoy a barn tryst, which now seems fond and foolish. Hay is prickly and dusty. But that’s how barn life played into my imagination.
Crossing 88 West toward Iowa, we drive in the direction of a warm front. A hot front. When we stop in Des Moines it will be 95 degrees. Along 88 many of the barn roofs are white. I mean blinding bright white. In some cases whole barns are bright white, which I think must be part of a heat management retro-fitting of barns. There are red roofs, and silver and gray and green and brown. But the white roof is so pervasive,
I wonder if there’s a government program helping farmers preserve these structures, make a future for them. I don’t want to imagine farm country without barns. I wonder if Michigan barn roofs are going white like these are. Back home in a few weeks, we’ll have to have a little barn crawl, go barn hopping to see. Right now between Bay City and West Branch, the fields look just like those on this Illinois interstate. When we get home, we’ll have to drive up North and pay attention to barns.