One day we got off the school bus and Grandma and Grandpap Knowlson’s car was in the driveway. Oh, we were so excited that they were visiting!!! As we got closer to the house, we realized there had been a big fire out by the burn barrel that sat next to the compost pile on the other side of the garden. We ran to the scene where a half an acre or so of tall pine trees stood smoldering like ominous black poles with charred sticks of all shapes and sizes. The same pine trees we played in as kids — they used to be so plush with evergreen branches. My Mom was holding a shovel and hitting small flames as it still burned, and Grandma and Grandpap and Aunt Mary were there helping her. They were covered in soot, obviously fighting the fire all afternoon. She smiled at us and told us that she was burning trash in the burn barrel, and next thing she knew the trees were on fire. We were fortunate that the fire department was able to get it out as quick as they did. I think three different fire departments came to the scene that day. I was probably 10 or 11 years old.
It was devastating at the time, but that’s where my Dad cleared the trees and built the barn. Once the barn was built and the pastures created, the signs of the fire began to diminish.
Dad was an amazing engineer!!! He could build anything and do anything he put his mind to. I admired that about him — he was so full of ingenuity and creativity. And he told us we could do anything — that everything was within reach if we worked hard enough for it. He was from the city, but always dreamed about raising a couple cattle and having a farm. The Goehring family from South Beaver talked to Dad about joining the Beaver County 4-H Stockman’s Club and it was on!
We had met Goehrings when we joined the Blackhawk 4-H Club, and my parents became leaders of the organization. Raising steers, sheep and pigs was a far cry from our sewing projects and flower gardens, but Dad was determined we could do it!
He built the barn using the sides of an old chicken coop that someone had torn down — he could do a lot with a little. It was a work-in-progress for some time, as the barn was only about two-thirds complete when the first animals arrived. The back of the barn was completely open. Little by little, my Dad finished the barn — then continued to enhance the functionality over the years with things like the installation of automatic waterers. What a major improvement that was in itself!
The life that barn brought to our family was nothing short of stupendous. The life it contained within its walls, as well as the life lessons that we learned over the years of hard work and responsibility — truly shaped who we are today. There were moments of pure elation and profound grief. There were frustration and tears, laughter and joy. And above all, love.
And last week, Mom had the barn torn down. It was a decision she made as it was unsafe in its current condition. Mom called me that night, after it was gone, and I could hear the sadness in her voice. All the memories. All the memories of my Dad — he not only built the barn, but he created what became the center of our family for many years — living his dream, teaching us so many things about life.
It had been almost 20 years since the barn had any inhabitants. Well, any inhabitants that we wanted in there.
My sister Debbie took pictures just before they tore it down. The pictures looked like a ghost of a barn with broken walls and an open roof. They were able to salvage to the automatic watering system and take the copper piping out for scrap. The rest of it likely became someone’s bonfire.
So tonight I was thinking back on some of the things that happened in that barn.
I remember the very first auction we went to and Dad bought a steer — weighing only about 450 pounds! It was a Hereford and Bob’s first steer. He was such a cute little calf. Oh my gosh — we were really going to do this! And the barn came alive!!! Then we went to more auctions where we bought lambs. We had no idea what we were doing, but we were being coached by various 4-H leaders and friends of my parents. I couldn’t believe it — Dad bought me two lambs at an auction — a truly heart-pounding moment — waiting to see if we got the little babies we picked out!!! And we did!!! One was a Dorset lamb — completely white, and the other was a Dorset/Hampshire mix. Debbie had two lambs — both were Suffolk lambs with black legs and black faces.
We had wood pallets that lifted the feed barrels off the ground to keep the bottoms of the barrels dry. To get the feed for the steers, sheep or pigs, you had to step up on that palette and scoop the grain into a pail. Sometimes a little grain would slip over the sides and fall under the palettes. One night, I swung open the door to the feed area and stepped up on the palette and heard a loud hiss!!! Below my feet, between the wood in the palette, was a fierce opossum. All I remember seeing were those red beady eyes and flashing teeth — yes teeth. I think I screamed for several minutes — totally flipping out. My Dad came running and went into the feed area with a pitchfork. I was standing about 20 feet away, and I heard a crunch and squeal — my Dad had stabbed the opossum with the pitchfork. He had it upside down as he took it out the back of the barn.
Another time when my Dad worked and lived in Michigan (during the weekdays), we managed the chores without him. In the winter time, it was dark by 5 pm, but we did have lights in the barn. One night I got the feed for the steers and started to dump in the chute that distributes it in their feeder and I heard a hiss — another opossum. It ran back and forth in the feed bin like a caged animal. My Mom and I stood there trying to figure out what to do — neither of us what going to stab it with a pitchfork! So, since my Mom worked for the township, she knew the policemen in the police department well. So without having to officially call the police, she called the police chief and asked him to come over to help us. Danny came over and shot the opossum right in the feeder. I had to clean up the mess before we could feed the steers.
There were mostly good times in that barn, though.
Every year we brought home baby animals — lambs, pigs and steers to raise for the fair. After a few years, my Dad had cemented the floors to all the pens so they were much easier to keep clean. Every night I would clean the pens and put a layer of fresh straw over the cement. That way the little sheep could curl up in the fresh straw or the steers could lay down in a fresh bed. Sometimes I would sit against the wall of the sheep pen and talk to those sheep. I can still smell the straw. And my hands would be so soft from the lanolin the wool. Sometimes Debbie joined me, and we would sit in those pens playing with the sheep for a long time.
In the winter, it was cozy in the barn. The lights were soft and it was actually quite a bit warmer inside than outside. We would close up the windows to keep the wind from whipping in. I loved it in there. The sheep were always talking — baaaaaaaa and mehhhhhhh — and they rarely stopped. The steers had these big noses and you could see their breath in the cold air. Bob usually cleaned the steer pen. But sometimes we took turns. He didn’t pay much mind to the other animals. He took care of his two steers. I only raised one.
Tommy took care of the pigs. He would spray their pen down with water and the dung would go out the back of the barn. Dad had built that wall with a gap so that it was easier to clean the pig pen. And it’s true what they say about pig pens — pigs love to be messy. They love to roll in mud and muck and be sprayed with the hose! They’re not so cuddly and not so cute, so I stuck with the sheep and the steers. 🙂
In the winter we carried water. Later after Dad put in the automatic, heated waterers, we didn’t have to lug giant pails of water from the house to the barn. The steers basin was stainless steel, and I would shine that bowl until it sparkled, making it so fresh for them. All they had to do was the push the button with their nose and it filled the bowl with fresh water. The sheep and pigs had spigots that they would lick and when the lever was pressed, water came from the spigot. The water was always clean and always fresh.
My ewe Amanda had two baby lambs on Easter Sunday. It was the event of the year and all my family was there to watch, perched on the walls of the pens and sitting on bales of hay. Our cousins, Teresa and Matt were in town from Parkersburg, WV and their whole family was there too — and Aunt Mary and my grandparents! There were at least 13 people there for the event!
We had never birthed any animals! My Dad did what instinct told him — and two little lambs were born that night. I remember kneeling at Amanda’s head, talking to her softly, coaching her through it. My heart was pounding with excitement! One lamb was completely black — I named him Buster and the other was white with black spots — I named him BoBo. I stayed in the barn with the newborns most of the night before my Dad made me go inside to bed. You couldn’t keep me from the barn after that. I would go out as soon as I got home from school every day. Debbie’s ewe, Cassandra had just one lamb a couple of weeks later, and she named her Christina. The ram that fathered the baby lambs was named Sam. He was a peculiar bugger with his big lips — he would open the pen gate and the sheep would get out in the pasture — we couldn’t figure out how the gate was getting opened. When we caught him in the act, we couldn’t believe it. He even had a mischievous look in his eyes.
I miss all those sheep. I loved them all so much!
That barn was home to lots of cats. One time I counted 23 of them. Most of them were extremely friendly, and you could pick up a cat almost anywhere around the barn. I remember we were stacking hay off the back of the truck near an area where we had stacked straw just a week before. And out popped a cat. I climbed off the truck, suspecting she had a litter of kittens in that straw — and yep, there were four tiny fur balls all cuddled in a nest that Mama cat had made. My Dad was saying something under his breath, but I made sure we didn’t disturb the nest. The next day, she had moved them, and I couldn’t find them for three weeks!
We had an old pony named Turk for a short while. Someone had given him to us and my Dad thought it might be good for us to have a horse. The problem was that all us kids felt too big to ride him. He required a lot of attention, brushing and fussing. And he got extremely lonely without any other horses. Our barn just wasn’t big enough for us to add anymore to it, so we gave Turk away to a good home.
There were mostly good times in that barn, until we lost an animal.
We tried not to cry in front of Dad and Mom, because they felt bad enough themselves. But when I was alone, I would weep for them. Buster and Bobo got a disease that killed Buster first. I found him lying in the straw one day. I sat next to him in the straw for some time with tears streaming down my face, sobbing. My sister ran to get my Dad. We called the Vet, but lost Bobo two days later before we even knew what they had. I was completely and utterly devastated. The disease killed our entire flock of sheep, and my Dad was so heart broken that we never got anymore.
Ahhh — the old barn. The sights, the sounds, the smells. The days of being literally covered in poop, sweat and who knows what else. Would I do it all over again? Yes, in a heartbeat — for Dad I would do anything.
Life changes and we move on. Sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye — tearing down that barn somewhat signified the end of a perfect time in our lives. A perfect time when we were all happy and healthy, and we had Dad with us — who was the source of all that love.
Always B E L I E V E.