HISTORIC BUILDINGS OF HERKIMER COUNTY
A BIOGRAPHY OF BARNS
By Alexis L. Johnson
"A Biography of Barns," was donated by BetteJo Caldwell, who has an original newspaper clipping from one of the Citizen newspapers (Ilion or Herkimer) given to her by Betty Currier. A resident of the Town of Schuyler, Mr. Johnson was in his 90s when he contributed articles to the Citizen paper in the first decade of the 20th century.
Alexis L. Johnson Writes of Schuyler's Century Of Structures.
Editors Citizen: Sometimes you get old jokes and stories that have been repeated many times since the serpent told his story to Mother Eve. Instead of them, your readers will be told of some old houses, and especially of four old barns that were built here and withstood the battering storms and winds of more than a century before they were laid low by the hands of a new and irreverent owner.
Of the old houses little will be told; the skeletons of two remain, but have not been used for many years. One is yet the home of the writer, who in his old age clings to it for the few years that may be spared to him. Nearly a century has passed since it was built, and its outside shows the ravages of time, while the inside affords a comfortable though small shelter from the rains of summer and the frost and snows of winter, especially if your coal bin is full or the woodhouse filled with dry wood. Tradition says the owner lived and kept a tavern in it a few years, and that a small store was kept in an addition that afterwards was removed. The house was occupied by several families till 1843, when the writer and his family took possession and are there yet. This is enough of prosy talk about the old house, but the kind reader I hope will pardon the garrulous old man for telling the story.
Of the four old barns we now will write: the barns that used to be almost a landmark in this old German settlement. But when one after another of these ancient buildings are taken down to make room for a new and imposing structure, we cannot fail to reflect on the great changes that have occurred in and around it since its roof tree was raised. The tall posts and magnificent beams show that the primitive forests were near from which the builder could select the heavy timber he deemed best to use.
The barns of our story were built near the close of the eighteenth century, or early in the last, but the exact date is not known. Many memories of the past cluster around and cling to them as they often do to buildings that have been used by different persons.
These barns were undoubtedly framed and built by the same man as their manner of construction was the same, but his name is lost in the lapse of time. The first owners and most of those who used them have gone down, and but few today remember them and only tradition has preserved their names. They were within half a mile along the road. Three stood with their ---- ---- ----(unable to read these words)its side. The wide doors for the driveway were in the gable end and one of the doors was cut across the middle so that the whole door need not be opened for all purposes. The frames were studded and coarded clapboard style; the roofs steep and high, and on the end of the ridge a pointed narrow board some three feet high was placed. This pointed board was seen on the old German barns in other places and was a sort of ornament. The floors were wide and solid to support the heavy loads of grain that were hauled on them and also to withstand the trampling of the horses that were driven over them to thresh out the grain that was laid in a circle on the floor.
In one of the barns, a large heavy cone shaped log that was covered with projecting pins was rolled over the grain by a team hitched to the outer large end, while the small end was fastened to the standard that stood in the center of the floor. This primitive threshing was usually continued by the thrifty Germans through the winter, as many of them raised considerable winter wheat from their new and fertile fields. This wheat was carried to Albany on sleights during the winter. These round trips to Albany usually occupied about five days.
Taverns were frequent along "the Albany road," and in after years these aged teamsters would often tell to the younger generation of their many and varied adventures along the road. This was long before the Erie canal was built, whose boats brought both wheat and flour from fertile fields in Genesee.
The Yankees did much of their threshing with flails, but their rhythmic reverberating strokes are no longer heard, and if any are left they are hung away as relics of the past. Threshing is now done by machines and wide barn floors are not needed.
Another use of the barn floors was to accommodate the frequent " husking bees" that were common in former years. The ears of corn were broken from the stalks, hauled to the barn and then, as Whittier says,
Heap high the farmer's wintry hoard
The husking was usually continued until the heap was finished or time to quit at 9 or 10 o'clock. The work was often enlivened by the presence of girls who chose their seats beside some young man, who, if he was lucky enough to find a red ear, was entitled to a kiss from the lass beside him. It was sometimes said that the young men would carry a red ear to the husking in their pockets, that they would happen to find, to secure the coveted kiss; and often a word was slyly said about "seeing her safe home" at the close. Usually a jug of whisky was present and passed along the row of huskers. Sometimes some would unite in singing the following lines:
"We had a black hen, she had a black foot,
This would start the jug on the rounds, but to the credit of the company none drank to excess.
After the work was done all went to the house where a bountiful supply of pies, cakes and cheese was piled high on the table for all to partake of. Plenty of hot coffee or new cider was there to wash down the cakes, and sometimes a pitcher of " black strap" or "egg nog" was made to wind up with. But husking bees are rarely held now, except as a sort of variety, as less corn is raised.
In some of the barns in this vicinity quarterly meetings were held, but none in these four German barns; but games of ball were played on the spacious floors on rainy days, and sometimes on Sunday if the day was fair.
The barn owned by Peter Oyer, whose father was killed at the battle of Oriskany, was used for ball playing more than others. This barn was taken down many years ago, as was the Bargy barn, and large ones built to replace them. The one built for John Finster is standing yet, though materially altered a few years ago by his grandson, Hiram Finster. Some ten or twelve feet was cut away from one side, and the roof was made much lower. It is still in use, but no winter or other wheat is piled on its beams or threshed on its floor.
The barn built by Jacob Clemens, "a soldier of the Revolution" as well as John Finster, was taken down last season by Lafayett Richards, who will use the timber for other purposes. The high gables and steep roofs of these barns, with their pointed stick, were land marks for many years, but they, like their builders, will soon be forgotten, and only tradition will tell of when or where they stood.
Twenty years ago such barns were seen on the farms of the early Germans along the Mohawk river, but they, like their owners, have gone down, and new generations and new barns have taken their places.
Copyright © 2001 BetteJo Caldwell/ Martha S. Magill
All Rights Reserved.