Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

The Lesson

by Rachel Dickinson

When I think about the farm I always see my father sitting on the ridge of our three-story barn, taking a break while shingling the roof. I can also hear him telling us his version of the work ethic: we must take pride in our work, and, what is most important is the completion of a job rather than who actually performs the labor. And ironically, this is the lesson I most closely associate with my father and my childhood. Even the smallest task, like taking the milk cans off the back of the truck, became an object lesson in responsibility. My sisters eventually figured out that since I was the oldest, I would ultimately be held responsible for an unfinished job, so they periodically conspired to leave their portion of a job undone so I had to finish up their work as well as my own. Fortunately, it was a weak alliance, which made their collaboration an infrequent event.

I grew up on a small dairy farm in upstate New York and a lot of my memories involve the smells and sounds of the barn -- the distinctive aroma of manure mixing with the brewer's grain and the loud keer-cha, keer-cha of the two milking machines, sometimes working in sync, but usually not. It was the early 1970s and most of the family farms in the area were larger than ours and were converting their operations to a milking parlor system. In this move toward efficiency, the cows were led to a central area and hooked up to milking machines that pumped the milk directly into plastic lines that snaked through the barn and went into the refrigerated bulk tank.

Our set-up was more reminiscent of a dairy farm of the 1940s where the cows walked to their particular spot in the lower section of the barn and waited to be tied to a post. My father and brother moved down the line of cows milking with the two machines that hooked--via a length of rubber hose -- into a pneumatic pipe running above the cows' heads. After milking each cow, they dumped the milk from the machine into a pail and when that was full, poured it through a strainer into a milk can. The milk cans were then set into cold water in what looked like a large chest freezer, until enough was collected to be driven to the milk plant over in the next county. I am sure that our farm continued to be operated in this fashion -- which was at least two generations out of date -- because we never had the resources required for expansion. But my father said we stayed at a subsistence level because there was something noble and honest about the small family farm always on the brink of financial ruin.

My father, like most people, was an odd blend of contradicting values and experiences. And because he was our father, we would listen to him and not question the authority of his proclamations. Like Scarlett O'Hara's father in Gone With the Wind, he would tell us that the land was everything, and like Scarlett, we believed him because it gave us something tangible to latch on to in the face of dire economic circumstances. This seemed skewed when he told us we had a better way of life than our land-poor middle-class friends but we wanted and needed to believe him. He touted the value of hard physical work, which he himself did but didn't demand of his children. He would periodically request our presence in the barn during the evening milking session but we would invariably spend our time petting the barn kitties and tap dancing to the rhythm of the milking machines rather than working. This didn't seem to bother my father who, we always suspected, was more interested in our company than our brawn.

We learned to love the barn. It was a beautiful three-story structure built in the late 19th century with immense hand-hewn chestnut beams for supports. The upper entrance led into the main portion of the barn, the section designed to hold literally tons of hay. Ladders along the interior walls provided access to the top of the barn and the cupola. We would climb those ladders to dizzying heights where we felt we had to clutch the rungs and lean into the wall to avoid pitching back onto the main floor. My father bought cedar shakes to re-shingle the barn roof. Although they were expensive, everyone knew that if you used cedar shakes, your barn would withstand the elements for another hundred years.

My sisters and I only had two jobs that we had to do around the barn: we had to take turns washing the milking equipment and unload the empty milk cans from the back of the truck when they came back from the milk plant, lining them up in the milkhouse. Although we knew we had it easy for farm kids-all of the other farm kids we knew had to work in the barn every night, and many mornings as well, and often smelled, at least slightly, of the barn at school-we didn't like having to do these chores. Most of our friends were from truly middle-class homes and had fathers with jobs like architect and college professor; we envied their normal chores like taking out the garbage and washing the dishes.

One winter day I came home from school and saw the cows being loaded onto a truck. I remember being happy because it meant I no longer had to do any barn chores. What I didn't realize was that my father was leaving with the cows.

My father only put shingles on half the barn roof before he left twenty-five years ago and today that beautiful 19th century structure with its immense chestnut beams is gone, a victim of the wind, rain, and snow.

It took a long time before you saw the effects of the half-completed roofing job and I couldn't drive past the old farm for several years after the barn began to visibly deteriorate. Box elders took root in the rotting hay on the main floor and branches pushed through the Victorian-detailed frames that once held windows. Eventually, the roof gave way and caved in, pulling part of the side walls into the upper hay mow.

Today nothing remains of the barn as nature strains to reclaim even the stones that once formed the foundation. And as I drive past the site, I am reminded of the Jeffersonian rhetoric of my father, and of his neglect, because he provided, in a most tangible way, an example of his own lesson.
Rachel Dickinson lives in Upstate New York and writes for a number of publications including Audubon, Islands Magazine, New Choices, and The Christian Science Monitor.