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The Last Windrow: Nothing says classic farm like a red barn

A reflection on a fading tradition.

Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com
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He drove in the farmyard in his 1953 baby blue Dodge pickup and in the truck's bed there were six five gallon buckets of red paint.  That week two barns on our farm would be painted.  

That image has stayed with me all the years after.  The day my Dad brought home those buckets of red barn paint and declared that if the weather stuck with us, we'd be painting both the milk and the hog barns the following week.  Do they paint barns anymore?  

Today a barn is more than likely to be sided with tin or steel, not the wooden siding that I grew up with.  The countryside of my boyhood was dotted with well painted farm buildings throughout the 50s and 60s.  That was the time of the still small family farm buildings were kept up lest the neighbors start talking about you.  An unkempt building evidently meant an unkempt person was living there.  If you didn't want to be talked about after the Sunday church service, you painted your buildings.  

Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

Usually the barns on a farmstead were painted first.   The house came in lower on the priority list.  The barn was where both the money and the impression was made.  The house could always wait, much to the chagrin of many a farm housewife.  

Our barns and the barns in our local area of Iowa were almost all painted red.  Most of the farmers who lived there came from a German heritage and if you've ever been to Germany you've seen that the predominant color of buildings is red.  If you travel to the Netherlands, you'll see that most of the outbuildings are painted white.  Both colors are dictated by the colors of the soil minerals available in those two areas of Europe.  


North of our farm, in the extreme northwest corner of Iowa, immigrants from the Netherlands settled and the the barns and outbuildings one witnessed there were colored white for the most part.  The Dutch were meticulous in keeping their farmsteads neat and painted.  So were the Germans in their area of the countryside.  I came from a Bohemian background, so we were free to paint whatever color we wanted.  Hence my family farm had red barns and a white house and garage and chicken coop.  Bohemians like to plow their own furrows. 

It's a sad fact of today's life that many of those grand old farm buildings have been torn down or are in the process of finding their way to the ground.  They are now replaced by metal pole buildings with absolutely no character at all.  They come from a cookie cutter industry where one looks almost like the other.  Rather boring in my mind.  

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In the section of land where our farm was located only one vintage farm still exists with it's tall barn crowned by a cupola with a weather vane topping the old building.  The other three farms that once stood in that section of land are completely gone from the landscape.  Our farmhouse was torn down a number of years ago and a new house stands in its place.  But, after a recent trip to that place I saw that one large barn still exists.  It needs a coat of red paint.  I'm afraid that the way it looks, it won't be there for long.  Evidently the new owners don't go to the same church as we did.  They would be talked about.  

John Wetrosky
John Wetrosky (2022)

It was an exciting Monday when Dad backed that old baby blue pickup up to the barn, pried open a five gallon bucket of red paint, poured it into a coffee can, gave me my first paintbrush and told be to start painting the lower boards on the barn.  When we finished a week later, the barn was a sight to see! 

They don't paint old barns like they used to.  Wish they did.  

See you next time.  Okay?

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