124-year-old barn one of oldest in state – Empty Nest by Curt Swarm

EMPTY NEST- BY CURT SWARM

It’s the only barn left on 8-Mile Road. There used to be 18 – 20 barns, sometimes two on a farm. They’re all gone now, blown down, rotted, torn down—just so many memories, like fast-food food wrappers blowing in the wind.
Except for the barn on the Roy and Donna Cowen farm, on the Jefferson-Van Buren County Line Road south of Fairfield, close to Birmingham. Roy calls it the 8-Mile Road because it’s eight miles between Highway 1 and the road just to the west of the Cowen farm.
The barn was built by Will McKee in 1895, same as the house, and placed on rock dug from a nearby quarry. Remember the Parable of The House Built on Rock? Roy’s parents bought the 160-acre farm in 1938 for $23 dollars an acre, which was high. One year later, land surrounding the farm dropped to $12 an acre.
When Roy was 8-years old, and going to school in Packwood, he was coming up the steps of the school house basement, when a pipe fell and hit him on the head. He was knocked unconscious for three days. During that three days without water or food, he came to for a few seconds and saw his grandfather sitting beside his bed. His grandfather looked worried. Roy survived, but his grandparents and parents never talked about the accident. Farm folk keep things close to their chest.
As Roy grew older, he rode a horse five miles to school in Libertyville. On Armistice Day, 1940, it was a balmy 70 degrees when Roy rode to school, When he got out of school at 3:00 p.m., the roads were frozen solid. The only thing that saved him was a Mackinaw tied to the back of his saddle.
Once, Roy was breaking a colt when it started bucking. Roy held on, knowing a horse wouldn’t go over backwards. The colt went straight up and fell over backwards on Roy. Fortunately, it was the first of March and the top couple inches of ground was soft and wet. Roy was indented into the ground. The colt got up and took off. Roy thought his spine was broken, but he could move his feet. Miracle upon miracles, the colt returned! Roy had always been taught to get up and get back on. He did, rode out to the pasture, and rounded up a hundred ewes that were ready to lamb.
With World War II raging, Roy could have been awarded a deferment because he took care of his parents. However, he asked the draft board if his parents could be declared his dependents. The draft board agreed and Roy became a Marine. He was stationed in the Philippines and China preparing for a land invasion of Japan. It would be a horrible battle because they knew the Japanese would fight with everything they had, “including the bathtub and kitchen sink.” Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb changed all that.
Coming home to the farm, challenges never ceased. In 1947 it rained and rained, and Roy and his dad couldn’t put up hay. On July 3, it rained three more inches, and then only two tenths of an inch more for the next 90. The first cutting of hay was chest high and tough. They let it cure for four days. When they loaded hay in the afternoon sun, all the leaves fell off the stems. Roy told his dad to stop the hay loader, they would put the hay up at night when it was cooler. “At night?!” his father hollered. “You can’t do that!” Roy said, “Dad, I’m an Ex-Marine. There’s no such word as ‘can’t.’” After the milking was done and the dew was on the hay, they went back out and loaded hay by moonlight. The leaves stayed on. It was the finest hay they ever put up, and Roy and his dad filled the barn, the absence of electric lights being only another obstacle to overcome.
On March 7th, 1977, Roy came in late from putting in oats. He still had milking to do. About 10:00 o’clock that night, Roy noticed dirt forming on the milk in his bucket. He looked up. The barn was shaking. The wind blew so hard, he thought the barn was going to come down. He crawled under the tractor. Other buildings were destroyed, but not the barn, because it was built on rock.
The Cowen farm is a livestock farm, not grain. In Roy’s prime, he had 100 ewes, 500 head of hogs, and 30 or so “nurse cows.” He bought thousands of bushels of corn and hundreds of tons of supplement. Roy was told that was no way to farm. Roy said, “Watch me.” Taking better care of his livestock was the key to success.
One spring Roy had 18 “nurse cows” with 36 calves. Three cows nursed three calves each, 12 nursed two, and three nursed only one. Roy never could figure out the why and wherefore, but the cows knew.
The barn is so old, all the wood siding has worn off and been replaced with tin. It cost half as much to have a new roof put on the barn by the Amish as the whole farm cost. Roy has built or rebuilt every building on the farm, plus put in fences for the first time, or two-or-three times for others. The farm is his life.
At 94, Roy has slowed down some, but not much. He still chores twice a day, but gave up baling hay at 90. He still prefers pitching hay with a pitchfork rather than tossing bales. He watches the Nightly News every night at 5:30 and takes care of his wife who uses a walker. He’s only missed one day of doing winter chores in 73 years—when he had hernia surgery. With 100 or so barns disappearing from the State of Iowa every month, Roy and his barn are locked in a dead-heat rivalry—which one will out last the other.

Have a good story? Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, email him at curtswarm@yahoo.com or visit his website at www.empty-nest-words-photos-and-frames.com

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