VanHaren: More than a place to store the hay

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By: 

Roger VanHaren

Is hay mow (haymow) one word or two? If you type either into Google, you’ll get basically the same results. I did that recently because I’d had an idea to write about adventures in the haymow (I prefer one word!) during my kidhood.

One of the results I found was an Airbnb listing for a rental barn loft ($52 a night) near Helenville, Wisconsin, in Jefferson County. It’s a guest room in the haymow of a restored mid-1800s barn allegedly owned by the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother. There’s no heat or air conditioning, but there’s a large fan for summer, and they’re closed in the cold weather. The bathroom in the milkhouse is shared with other guests potentially staying in The Silo. The website had glamorous pictures of the haymow suite but none of The Silo room. Interesting.

My recollections of the haymow don’t involve glamorous quilts and curtains. My memories include two quite different lofts because we had two quite different barns: our “old” barn and our “new” barn. The new barn was built when I was about 11, and it was much larger than the old barn. When the haymow was empty, the space was big enough to play touch football games, a great rainy day activity. There was usually just enough loose hay left on the floor of the haymow to cushion your fall if the “touches” got too physical.

The old barn had a much smaller loft and there was a “drive-through” that was big enough for a team of horses or a tractor to pull a load of hay or straw inside. This drive-through space meant that there was a great leaping-off place. We could throw a pile of hay or straw into the space and then climb up into the loft and cannonball into the stack. We never worried about missing the pile and landing on the floor. In our pretending, we could be paratroopers, or Tarzan, or acrobats.

Of course, most of these adventures happened long before the advent of baled hay or the long white plastic bags of chopped hay you see in the Wisconsin countryside these days. The hay was loose, hauled into the loft by a big claw-shaped fork, that was pulled by pulleys up to the peak of the barn, where the fork would move along a track and could be tripped by a rope by the guy who was tending the mow.

That rope also became a part of our adventures later on. We could swing on the rope and propel ourselves into the soft bunches of hay. What more could you ask? With the more modern ways of harvesting and storing hay, a lot of the adventures we had are probably no longer available to the farm kids of today. Too bad.

The haymow also presented some different adventures. Like many dairy farms, ours was home to an ever-changing clowder of cats. (Educational note: Did you know that a group of cats is a clowder?) These cats were not pets, but they weren’t wild. We could pet them and we named some of them, but they were not allowed in the house. (Mom’s rule: no animals in the house!)

We gave them milk, and in return, the felines were expected to control the vermin population such as rats and mice. We paid special attention to the female cats.

When we noticed that a particular mother cat had begun to grow a belly, we knew that a new litter of kittens would soon be joining the clowder. When we noticed that the mother became more streamlined, we had a new haymow adventure awaiting us.

As soon as we realized that the “queen” (that’s what a female cat is called) had given birth, we’d swing into action. We knew that we had to find her litter of kittens as quickly as possible because if the kittens weren’t petted and properly acclimated to humans, they would grow up feral. Besides, we didn’t want to be deprived of weeks of fun playing with the funny little fur balls.

Ah, the haymows of my youth!

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.