Our June Project
My 13-year-old son, Will, and I have been diligently hauling trash out of our barn and organizing all that needs to stay, readying it for a bit of restoration.
This old barn is worth restoring.
A newspaper clipping from Dupuyer noted that this barn and another one just east of the Graham Ranch were built in the 1890’s. The owners brought stonemasons from Scotland to the area to build these barns. Three sides are flat sand rock gathered from the hill that overlooks the site, overlapped to create a solid wall. Parts of the west and north rock walls tipped over — they must have been bumped hard at one time — but the stacks still lay there looking just like miniature vertical slabs of the Rocky Mountain Front.
The south side of the barn boasts a series of sliding panels designed to open and let warm sunshine beam on ewes and new lambs or close to protect them from harsh storms.
This barn measures 180’ by 90’ and holds an amazing amount of history within its walls.
Rawhide sheep skins hang from the rafters and probably have been there for 60 or 70 years. The fleece is filthy, but the wool is still supremely soft.
Loops of sisal twine hang near the sheep hides, singular evidence of thousands of bales of hay once fed inside the barn. Baling wire, used later, was neatly threaded over another rafter. And a 1918 Montana license plate documents the beginning of the automotive era.
Thigh-high wooden panels are tied together with baling wire, portable alleys for working the sheep. No doubt, those panels were used during shearing, among other times. The counts for each shearer are painted on one of the barn doors. On June 23, 1937, K.V. B sheared sheep and he returned a week earlier in 1938, a week later in 1939 and sheared on July 3, 1940. When my husband, Steve, shears in March and April, he keeps a tally, too, but he marks paper with a pencil instead of paint on wood.
Two sturdy towers that held wool sacks stand about 9 feet tall inside the barn, their iron rings that held the dangling burlap sacks in place lean nearby. I can picture little boys — the little ones always had to pack the wool — climbing up the rungs of the tower and slipping down into the burlap bag. They would not be able to climb back out until they packed enough fleeces to fill the bag.
The dirt in the barn tells a story, too. I’m sure the barn has been scraped out many times in the past 120 years, but sheep manure still measures more than a foot deep. That’s a lot of sheep on that ground.
Will and I hauled off the old sheep hides, twine and rusty tin cans so we can get to the posts. We will dig holes next to each post and place another new one next to it. We’ll raise the roof where the old posts sank a bit and support others that probably will sink soon.
Then we will replace some of the cracked support beams that took a beating in that 180-mile wind last spring. The barn builders were visionaries, placing the barn just right to resist the typical northwest winds and the periodic east winds. That wind last spring came from the southwest, unusual to say the least, but our 120-year-old barn withstood the forces that twisted our neighbors’ irrigation pivots and blew roofs off other farm buildings. The barn creaked and cracked and moaned, but it held its ground. Still, I’m not sure it could withstand another gale force.
We would enjoy far less work if we just started from scratch to build a new barn next to this one, but we think the heritage within this barn’s walls deserves to be celebrated. And, as we clean up debris and dig post holes, Will and I are building just a bit of our own heritage. When we finish, maybe we will paint our names and the date on one of the doors.
Lisa Schmidt and her husband, Steve Hutton, raise natural, grassfed beef and lamb at the Graham Ranch near Conrad.
She has two children; Will, 13, and Abby, 4.