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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

The Soul of a Barn: From the Author's Pen

Vintage Barn, Digital Art, CC0
Vintage Barn, Digital Art, CC0

Remembering a barn and entering it is to remember my heart and enter my soul. I am confident that a wide assortment of thoughts and ideas come to mind for each of us when we conjure an image of a barn. I offer my condolences to those of you who have only books and movies for a reference point. Barns have been and continue to be one of the common threads woven throughout my life. If you have read my work, you will see that the barn plays an important role.

Several barns of my childhood come to mind. Our first family barn—a traditional, unattached, 19th-century beauty—still stands proudly in the village of Sandwich, New Hampshire. It’s known as a “bank” barn, meaning that it’s built into a hill providing two levels to be entered from the ground. The lower level housed animals and was almost always situated on the south side to allow a sunny and dry spot. The upper hillside was convenient for wagons to enter and to thresh and store grain. This barn boasts a large main entrance and open center surrounded by stalls and two other stories that serve as lofts.

There is an outhouse in the back with two holes, shelves, and a large horseshoe nail for hanging the Farmer’s Almanac or Sears catalog, depending upon the family’s preference. Of course, when we inhabited the residence, we had plumbing, so the outhouse was simply a relic or emergency stop for the kids when running all the way to the house was inconvenient.

Like many historic New England “bank” style barns, the lofts were not accessible by traditional stairs; we shimmied up a pole to get to the second and third stories. The barn was solid; however, you could see daylight between the cracks of the inner structure. I remember old car doors stacked in one of the lofts and other oddities tucked in and around all of the unique rooms and spaces of the barn.

I had one of those plastic bouncing horses with springs that I kept in one of the horse stalls. The door in this stall opened out into the backyard, which was relatively high above the ground. I am sure that if I returned, like other childhood memories, the height of the door will be much lower than my recollection. I used to climb out into a tree that grew beside the door. My earliest memory of deciphering art clouds came from that sacred spot on the ground near the base of the tree. To this day, if I am not at my magic tree, I often recreate the blue sky and puffy clouds when I close my eyes to meditate.

During our time there, the lower level for housing animals became a healthy vineyard, abundant with Concord grapes. They were bitter at times, but we enjoyed them just the same.

This was the beginning of my long-standing relationship with barns. I found myself spending a great deal of time in them. It seems as if most houses in the village had at least one good barn on the property, most of them attached to a dwelling, a vital part of our playscapes.

After I outgrew my bouncing horse, I parked my orange and chrome bicycle in the stall. The memory of bringing my horse to and from the stable brings about a smile. It was a habit, simply a part of my routine.

Typical New England stonewalls meandered throughout the property, serving as boundaries and the holding of grazing animals. Our neighbor’s horses were in the pasture that bordered our property. At that time, I was horrified by their hugeness to the point of experiencing sheer panic when they escaped and had nightmares about being trampled. My sisters, my friends, and I dared each other to touch the electric fence.

In the nearby town of Holderness, my grandparents operated one of the largest dairy farms in the region. As a child, I spent weeks at a time there, celebrated holidays and family events, and enjoyed regular Sunday visits. There were countless dairy cows, chickens, pigs, horses, gardens, and a maple sugar shack.

That barn is a massive “bank” barn with a dizzying, forbidden silo in the back. The lower level, built for housing dairy cows, provided the milking stations. There are dozens of stalls on the main floor for horses and several areas for more cows. In my time, the lofts were always filled with hay.

I loved that barn.

I learned the basics of farming by observing my seemingly unapproachable grandfather. I watched him nurture, manage, and herd the cows. The other animals and plants were in their appropriate outbuildings—coops, piggeries, and greenhouses. The cows and horses were in the barn. I often wondered how the views would be from the cupola, but I was never allowed to go above the main floor.

A little north of there, and nestled in the White Mountains, is my father’s birthplace—Campton. My Aunt Irene and Uncle Bill lived yet on a different style farm—a New England Victorian. It was designed for a small, independent farm family with a series of neat buildings attached.

This was a perfect example of how a barn may reflect an individual’s personality. Uncle Bill was a dedicated vegetable farmer. His barn housed an impressive tractor and attachments, equipment such as sharpening tools and lathes, and a wide assortment of standard tools. He also had a root cellar, canning room, and potting shed. There was a modest area with a few stalls, which he used for storing an antique car. His barn was orderly, tidy, and swept clean. He knew where everything was; this barn demanded respect, and even on the hottest summer day, it was always quite cool. Although I enjoyed family get-togethers, learned how to throw a Frisbee, and snapped countless green beans, the barn was off-limits to children. I assure you that for the most part, we were good girls, but my sisters and I did slip into the barn unnoticed on a few occasions. Still, that barn remains somewhat in the shadows.

Then we moved into a vintage farmhouse in Center Harbor. The style of this farm was different from the one in Sandwich. Much like train cars, the various buildings were connected. Attached to the kitchen—the front part of the barn—was a wagon or carriage house. Along with a horse or two for practical use, the back area was for livestock. It was suited more for the gentleman farmer who may have had a few animals for specific duties such as plowing, working the fields, and hauling wood.

It did not have the down under place for the animals. The area situated in the back of the barn was designated as a blacksmith shop; perhaps he was a local farrier. There were several stalls and an upstairs attic accessible by stairs. After moving in, I found many (unclaimed) treasures in the attic, including an old fiddle. I showed my parents, who gave it to the granddaughter of the previous owners, creating a scribble over my head that lasted for many years. Oh, how much fun it is to bring these experiences onto the page.

However, there was a beautiful old upright piano in the central part of the barn that worked, and for reasons unknown to me, stayed in tune for years. (Perhaps I was forgiving.) I played it day and night, in all seasons, and for one entire summer with a cast on my arm. It was that good.

There was an occasional skunk and family of raccoons that remained for several generations. This perplexed my father, who finally caught me feeding them. (So that’s why they returned.) We had an impressive vegetable garden and yielded a good crop.

That barn was a sanctuary for harmony, my companion. While navigating multiple stages, seasons of life, I journeyed from girlhood into the realms of womanhood. Together, the barn and my music provided not only a sacred place, but it was safe, safe from the outside world.

We left the big green piano back in Sandwich. The barn piano was better. Other than being cold and raw at times, I played it nearly every day, even if it meant only one short song. I had taken enough piano lessons to provide a foundation to continue exploring chord structure and fundamental harmony. I was driven to play the piano and trumpet. Other than myself, no one really cared whether I did this or not. However, it brought about a smile to my dear father. This time and exploration proved to be essential in my years as a professional musician.

However, the most significant barn was in New Hampton. It was the barn of my children and my motherhood. It housed chickens—sometimes more than fifty at a time—bunnies and goats. It was brimming with life—or as Silas would say, livestock and deadstock. Not only did this farm provide a safe environment for the animals, but it was also an invaluable learning experience for my children—homeschooling. I had always treasured the animals at my grandparents’ farm, my pets, and wildlife. It was and still is my goal to maintain an independent existence and to teach my children well. I inhabited the roles of both the farmer and the farmer’s wife.

The sounds varied greatly, each provoking different responses within. For example, the crowing rooster—annoying to some but pleasing to me—obviously signals the start of the day. Of course, there are rowdy displays of courtship, securing the pecking order, or the amusing strains of a youngster in training.

I confess that I nestled deeper into my bed on frigid days when the temperature hovered in the single numbers. However, this comfort did not last, as every good farmer has a conscience. I threw back the quilt and went downstairs to stoke the woodstove and start my coffee. I looked at the barn and smiled. I knew that the goats were romping about anxiously in their pens, the bunnies wiggling their noses, and the chickens that were not busy laying, shuffled, murmured, and pecked about.

I pulled my jacket over my flannel nightgown and stepped into my barn boots. With egg basket in hand, I made my way up the hill to the barn. The goats always bleated wildly when they heard the door, and the king roosters crowed louder than before. There is a great deal of mutual respect between the farmer and her animals. With the help of my children, I cared for them, and in return, they produced eggs, milk, and life lessons that continue to unfold.

In the spring, the barn is filled with surprises. A favorite is the hatching and peeping of baby chicks. Watching them follow their mother around the yard is a sight to behold. The baby bunnies were cute yet useless to me, offering another lesson. Some people eat rabbit meat; we did not, so they were a rapidly multiplying problem.

The goats were exceedingly eager to escape. Their excitement, curiosity, and determination are like that of children. They are often impatient and energetic, stopping at nothing to get their way.

I walked up the ramp and paused. They paused. That moment of silence and anticipation was almost too much. When I opened the door, the goats shrieked, and the chickens squawked. (Goats are so dramatic.) The bunnies hopped to the front of their hutches and pressed their wiggling noses against the mesh.

But ah, the hay… Its fine dust sparkles like gold in the sunlight, providing a false sense of warmth in the dead of winter. The shimmering sheets of silence are surreal, inviting me to dream. In those moments, it is difficult, but not impossible, to breathe. That, and the ruffling of feathers, reminds me that we are in it together.

The scent of a barn is often comforting and reassuring—a sign of life. It’s unsettling that so many rely on the idea that food comes from the store. Of course, farming, growing your own food, and self-sustainability is not always an option. For me, it’s a way of life.

In my historical fiction series, Etched in Granite, many scenes are connected to a barn. In fact, the barns are where several pivotal, life-altering events begin, unfold, and in spirit, never end. In most cases, I am much at ease with barns and understand their history and essence in rural New England.


Barbara Sinclair
Barbara Sinclair
Jul 25, 2021

MJ, I have to admit to a case of barn envy reading this! You are such a rich storyteller. Thank you for sharing this part of your history with us. 💗

Mj Pettengill
Mj Pettengill
Jul 26, 2021
Replying to

Thank you, Barbara. You are in barn country now. You will catch up sooner than later. 🙏🏼

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