At Home in an Oregon Barn

THE barn at Whitney was built in about 1920 of western larch (called tamarack, locally) cut from the nearby forests and sawed to timbers and boards at the mill down the river about a mile. The mill was deteriorating, but the barn was still sound. Some of the metal roofing (not the original roofing) was loose and banged in the wind when we first moved into the nearby house, but I eventually got that nailed down tight. One wall sagged because the sill settled into soft ground. The hayloft floor bowed down ward between the beams that spanned the center section of the barn. At first, Laura and I prohibited our daughters from going up there. But as we became confident that they were careful, and after we tested the floor, we lifted that rule. Eventually, they had unrestricted use of the barn.

The first year that we took over as caretakers of the ranch, we harvested the hay and stacked some of the bales down the center of the barn. When winter snow came, we used that hay to feed the cattle until the crew had time to move them to the home ranch 20 miles down the river.

We didn't stack hay in there again. It was tight work to get it out with the forks on the big tractor, and insurance on the hay was higher than if it was stacked in the open. But every year after that, we used the barn to garage the big diesel tractor we kept at Whitney to handle the hay. The exhaust pipe on the tractor ended only about two feet below the hayloft floor, and every time I started the tractor, I was a little worried that it might set the barn on fire. But John said it wouldn't, and it was his barn and his tractor, so I kept it in there. Diesel engines won't start if they get too cold. There was no electricity, so we couldn't plug in a block heater, but the barn, and cardboard that I put around the engine and the radiator, helped keep it from cooling down too much.

About midnight I would get up, dress warmly, walk to the barn, start the tractor, drive it out of the barn, warm it up about 20 minutes, and then back it into the barn again. If the thermometer hit 20 below or lower, I'd do it again at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. After about two weeks of feeding, the crew took the cattle and the tractor down the river to the home ranch.

I often walk at night. Away from the cities, where stars or the moon are the only lights, it is rarely too dark to walk. One foggy spring night, I stood just inside the open double doors of the barn. The geese were back, the big Canadians, loudly honking above in the dark. Then the smaller, softer-voiced, more melodious snow geese flew over. They didn't stay in the valley like the Canadians, but they stopped on their way somewhere else, down for a rest at night and gone again early in the morning. It to ok concentration not to anthropomorphize their calls. These birds were full of life and exuberance. It is only to a human whose perspective has slipped that their calls sound lonely and lost.

Our daughters, Juniper and Amanda, used the barn for a playhouse. The possibilities for hide and seek were almost unlimited, with horse stalls, feed chutes, a grain room with crawl spaces under it, and places under the stairs.

Juniper learned a lot about climbing in the barn. Braces supported the boards between the uprights, laced the walls together at angles, and provided hand and footholds. I would have been concerned about the possibilities for injury, but I remembered being a child and considered too much prohibition to be ineffective. A parent can't watch all the time, so I said "Be careful," and trusted her sense and agility.

I parked the pickup in the barn during cold weather. I cleaned the dirt floor in the center area of anything flammable. When we needed the pickup, I put a propane torch in a long stovepipe on the ground under the engine and let the torch warm the engine until it was easy to start.

JUNIPER spent one winter day at the barn because she wanted to be on her own. She took food, water, and books. The high temperature that day was 20 degrees. She stayed until almost dark, but she said she thought she'd do it next time on a warmer day.

We used the grain room, inside the building, for an ice-storage room the year we cut ice from the river, and the ice met our needs for keeping food cool until late summer.

I stacked wood in one bay through the spring, summer, and fall, until we had plenty for our own use and some to sell through the winter.

After the deep winter of Whitney Valley, when spring sunshine melted enough of the snow that I could start irrigating and fixing fences, there were still days when snowstorms blew down off the mountains. I kept tools and materials in the barn and retreated there in some of the worst storms. I opened the big, south-facing double doors and worked inside, just out of reach of the storm, where there was plenty of light. I split western larch into the right sizes for rock jacks, posts, and H braces for fence s, nailed the materials into rock-jack frames, and worked on the ranch machinery. I dropped whatever I was doing and headed for outdoor work if the storm gave way to sunshine.

In the heat of summer, inside the barn was a cool, shaded place to sharpen sickle bars during haying, work on mechanical problems, visit with someone, or just sit alone for a while and think or not think. On summer afternoons when we had company, we wound up in the corral, over by the barn. There weren't any trees close, and the barn provided the biggest shade around. It was a good place to watch evening fall into the valley.

And from inside the barn came the sound of children playing. They would come out and join us before dark.

We moved on to other jobs and other places, but the barn is still there. Its golden-brown color of weathered larch, from the time when there were only dirt roads, marks almost three-quarters of a century of changes, marks times and uses yet to come, the biggest playhouse in Oregon.

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