Almost as indigenous to Vermont as Ethan Allen and maple syrup are that state’s red barns, even today after the virtual demise of the once predominant “family farm”, reminding us that until the 1950s, there were more cows than people “grazing” on those green hillside pastures. The story is even told that a one-time Vermont governor distributed free buckets of red paint to farmers as encouragement to spruce up some of those weather-worn artifacts to keep the tourists happy.
I was lucky enough to do some of my growing up on such a farm, and much of that working in or serving around such a barn. When our family first took physical possession of the “Old Bowen Place”, the agreement was that we would continue to house and care for Squire Bowen’s hefty pig until butchering time in November. When still a youngster, the Chester White had been moved inside to a pen located in the unused rear part of the venerable barn, where first its equally-venerable owner, and then we continued to feed and tend it. At the time we assumed duties, Squire estimated that the squealing giant had reached over 400 pounds in weight. (Old-time Vermonters like the Bowens grew their pigs with salt pork or sow belly in mind!)
One morning, late in the enterprise, I went to deliver the bucket of swine food to our tenant only to find nothing but a huge gaping hole where the pig pen had been, and loud squeals coming from somewhere far below. Built probably in the last decade of the 1800s, ours was what is known as a “bank barn”; an edifice actually built into the bank of a hillside so that it is a single story structure in the front where the milking parlor and hay loft are situated, but with a rear section built on a high stone foundation with storage space below.
The long-abandoned “downstairs” of our barn had been filled with old discarded farm equipment, horse-drawn implements, and dust-enshrouded junk, including a bulky wagon shaft and ancient molasses barrels. When we opened the long-disused sliding doors, what met our eyes was a noisy and thoroughly enraged sow “trapped” within a cocoon of junkyard litter. Anyone who has worked around members of the swine family would have a healthy respect for any adult critter, let alone one as “ticked off” as Squire’s sow that fall day.
It was obviously a job for “experts”, and soon a battalion of farm-bred neighbors had come to the rescue, each with a strongly-held strategy for coaxing the victim out into the real world. It was finally decided that a strong pole inserted behind the enraged animal might work, and so a nearby piece of spruce-wood fencing was brought into play. The angry porker soon chewed the end of the offending pole into matchwood, while grown swearing men did their best to force a reasonable outcome for a situation which steadily deteriorated as the day drew on.
At some point in the afternoon, everyone went up to the house for a cool drink before resorting to the only remaining option: a clean shot to the head with a Winchester 32.40. It was then when Squire’s sow decided to amble on out all by herself, thereby postponing her pre-ordained destiny by another month, and leaving us all with a tale to recount.
For me, the most memorable part of the story came 35 years later, when on a vacation whim, I asked the current owners of the old farm for permission to walk my young son around the property, showing him where I had lived and worked as a boy his age. I told him the story of the pig “cave in” and even walked around to the back of the now-sagging and derelict barn. We entered the cavernous underground passage as I pointed out the details of that long-ago event. Looking around, I felt a shiver run up my spine when I discovered the old spruce pole with its chewed end still leaning against the stone wall where it had been left all those years before; the day that Squire’s old sow took a tumble.
Photo No. 1 Meticulously restored and lovingly maintained, this old “bank barn” is still an eye-catcher at Furnace Brook Farm in Chittenden Vermont.
Photo No. 2 Because it takes a lot of summer hay and forage to carry a herd of milkers through seven or eight months of winter, Vermont barns were typically built large. This one, with its “coat of many colors” is sheathed with a slate roof designed to keep out years of weather.