BARNS AND BUTTERMILK

Sitting across the road from my house is an old red barn. Some one hundred and twenty years ago that same barn sat on land that was part of an original two-hundred-and-fifty acre tract of farm land formally known as the Bramlett land. By 1987, when the bank bought it and we signed over our lives to it, that original tract of land had shrunk to eighty-five acres which was eighty more acres than we were looking for. The rest had been dispersed to who knows where. I know that part of it was sold as a tract of land across the road because, at some moment in history, the original barn was separated from the farm house by what is known today as Scenic Highway 11 or the Cherokee Foothills Highway. My garden is located directly across the road from the barn and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t commit the deadly sin of envy because I covet that barn. I guess it could be worse; I could be coveting my neighbor’s wife.

I love old barns. I stop and take pictures of old barns and try to visualize how they would have looked in their “hay” day. I have even drawn plans for my own barn that I am going to build one of these days, if that day ever comes before the sands of the hourglass run out. I love what I would call old southern barns that aren’t tobacco barns, although even tobacco barns beat the gambrel or saltbox roof…for looks. For some reason I associate gambrel-roofed barns with the barbarian part of the world located above the Mason-Dixon Line. I’m sure that, for usable space, gambrel roofs allow you to put more hay in the loft but how much hay do you need for one horse and one cow. That was the barn of my youth. One plow horse and one milk cow were all we had and our barn didn’t have those nifty advertisements painted on the side either. “Visit Lookout Mountain”, “See Rock City” or “Drink Coca Cola” would have been nice but you could not have seen it from the road anyway.

My grandparents’ barn was a slab-sided barn. For the uneducated, slabs were the outer bark covered planks that were first trimmed from the log that is being processed. Because a log has a rounded surface, slabs cut from a log had one round side and one flat side. Since they were cut from different sized logs there was no rhyme or reason for their width. This made them only useful as barn siding or for burning in a wood stove or fireplace. We did both. My grandfather and his brother, Banks, ran a sawmill during the winter months to help make ends meet until my grandfather began working full time at Springs Mills. The sawmill itself consisted of a large rotating circular saw blade that was turned with a pulley belt attached to a very old tractor. I do not know this for sure but it makes the story in my head warmer to believe that PawPaw not only built the barn with his own hands but also built it from the lumber that he and his brother milled themselves. True or not that is the story that I have decided to believe.

As a child that barn seemed to be huge but, as I sit here as an adult, I realize it could not have been that big. It had only a pair of stalls on one side and a tack room and workshop on the other. It was separated by an entry way large enough to accommodate an old wagon and various plows, planters and a drag-harrow. Above it all was a loft that was a child’s dream of a playhouse…until I found the twenty-foot snake skin. Okay, it might have been a little shorter. Cowboys and Indians, war games and hide-and-seek were all played in and around that barn and in its loft. One game that almost got out of hand was played after seeing some old western movie where the hero jumps from the second-story balcony onto his horse and, without so much as a grunt, rides off after the desperados. My best bud decided he wanted to give it a try but because we didn’t have a second-story balcony or a horse at the time we decided to use the loft and his bicycle as stand-ins. That didn’t turn out too well and, thankfully, he jumped first while I was holding his bike. Ouch! Not that I was a chicken or anything but I decided quickly that I didn’t want to give it a try. I wonder if he ever had any children.

One of the first clear memories that I have as a child is of following Nannie into the barn at dark-thirty to milk the cow. Winter or summer, clear or rainy, it did not matter. The cow had to be milked and it was milked every morning before my grandfather returned from his third shift at Springs in his ’49 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. During the spring and summer, after a breakfast that always included fresh milk, biscuits, grits or oatmeal and eggs, he would trade the Olds for the plow horse and head to the fields before finally going to bed in the early afternoon to rest for his next shift that began at ten that night. My clear memory is of Nannie milking that cow while squatting on her heels in the manner that only country folks can seem to achieve. The memory must have been of an event that took place in winter because my memory is of the steam first rising from the water Nannie used to wash the cow’s udder and then from the milk itself as it hit the cold milk pail.

Before being refrigerated, the milk would be placed in a clear pitcher and allowed to separate. Cream would rise to the top and be skimmed off and used for baking or to “whiten” the bitter Luzianne coffee with chicory that my grandparents preferred. Of course, there would be the raw, unpasteurized milk for the rest of us. Once a week it would seem, leftover milk would be poured into a churn and turned into sweet, pale yellow butter and its byproduct, buttermilk, which unlike the butter, was not sweet at all. While I cook with it, buttermilk is not something that I have ever developed a taste for so, I guess I got lost on that particular path around home. I do remember meals that involved leftover cornbread crumbled in cold glasses of buttermilk. In my mind’s eye I see both of my grandparents wiping their mouths after finishing off a glass of buttermilk and smiling in such a way to make me believe it was the best liquid libation one could have. Eventually the “buttermilk gone bad” would be fed to the hogs. Periodically, I drink a little buttermilk just to remind myself that I still don’t like it and that I don’t really know how you tell if buttermilk has gone bad. Aside from what was used to make biscuits, it all could have gone to the hogs. Luckily, and for the most part, my youthful memories are as rich as the raw unpasteurized sweet milk in my grandmother’s milk pail. There are only a few memories that remind me of the soured buttermilk we fed to the hogs.

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