Saturday, July 28, 2018

Singleton missed the by-gone days of old-timey community barn-raisings

Singleton missed the old-timey days of barn-raisings.

(For decades, local historian and paranormal investigator George “Buster” Singleton published a weekly newspaper column called “Somewhere in Time.” The column below, which was titled “Old barns never die – they just fade with time” was originally published in the July 13, 1995 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)

A certain feeling of sadness comes over me as I travel around the area and see the old abandoned home places and see the decaying and rotting old barns standing there at crazy angles.

They stand as though waiting for a strong north wind to strike the final blow, leaving only a pile of rotted timbers and broken shingles to memory. There was a time in the history of country folks when the old crude log barns played a major part in the family upbringing and its welfare.

Some of the fondest memories of my early childhood hinge on the old two-story barn where I grew up. Our youth of today have missed a lot by not growing up around a large barn and being able to play and frolic inside and around a country barn.

There was a time when one could never travel through the countryside without seeing a new barn being raised here and there. Raising a new barn was a job for the whole community. Word was passed around the community that a certain farmer was going to have a barn-raising and planning for the new structure would begin to take shape.

Perhaps in the farm community there was a farmer who had the knowledge and ability to cover a barn with wooden shingles or “boards,” as they were often called. This farmer would see to it that the right amount of boards would be split for the new barn.

Then there would be one who was experienced in cutting poles from which the walls of the structure would be made. He and his farm help would cut the long, slender poles and carefully notch them so they would fit snugly together.

There would be those who would mix the mud and mortar to chinch the cracks between the poles. This was done to keep out moisture and small rodents such as rats and mice.

I can see it now, the gathering of a country community for a barn-raising. Those too small to do any work were required to assist in any way they could, such as carrying drinking water to the farmers who were building the structure. Between those chores, there was time for a good frolic and get-together with the other kids.

The highlight of the gathering would be when some elderly person would be called upon to relate a good story about his or her childhood or a hair-raising story about a relative who fought in the bloody Civil War.

My darling grandmother was the one most sought-after when it was time for a story of the dreaded Civil War. She knew all the stories pertaining to the members of the family who wore the uniform of the Confederacy.

There would be an abundance of good food and all kinds of delicious cakes and pies. Peanut candy and popcorn balls most times were rationed out to small children by a darling mother or grandmother who kept a close eye on their small, blood kin, who, unless reminded, would forget about the chore of carrying water to the workers.

If a child of the family who was raising the barn had a special pet, this was a good time to show it off. A pet billy goat or gopher was a prized pet to show off.

The barn-raising would cease the minute word was put forth by the womenfolk that the meal was ready. Everyone went to the well to wash their faces and hands before a long, drawn-out blessing was said by one of the local church deacons. Then, after the blessing was given, the serious eating began.

If anyone left the barn-raising hungry, it was his own fault. This was no place for anyone who was watching his weight; anyone who didn’t eat his fill was either mad or sick, and these conditions were very rare.

As the eating would begin to lose its momentum, from out of nowhere would appear an old banjo or guitar. If my grandfather was present, he would usually step forth dressed in his Scottish kilt (into which he had changed earlier while everyone was busy eating). Old man Kilpatrick would also step out, dressed in his kilt and the music of the bagpipes filled the air.

The entertainment with the bagpipes would last for about 30 minutes before the final notes of the beautiful old hymn of “Amazing Grace” floated across the barn-raising. If one watched closely, one would notice my darling grandmother and mother and several more of the older women slowly turn and wipe their eyes on the corners of their aprons. This beautiful old hymn always brought tears to the eyes of almost all the grownups present.

As the tears were dried, the sound of the guitar and banjo music rang under the chinaberry tree. A buck-dancing contest always took place between two of the farmers present.

Loud hand-clapping and cheering gained momentum as the dancers stepped higher and higher. Anyone present who wanted to try their skills at buck-dancing only had to step forward and go at it. Even I, encouraged by my dark-haired, darling grandmother, would step out in the dancing arena and show off a bit.

While the finishing touches were being applied to the newly constructed barn, plans were being formulated for the spend-the-night party. It was a policy among the young boys of the community to spend the first night in the new barn.

Three or four quilts were brought forth and these were placed up in the loft of the barn. A kerosene lantern was hung in the hallway of the new barn and as the creeping darkness slowly settled over the new structure, several noisy and tired small boys stretched out on the spread quilts for the night. The refreshing odors of the newly constructed barn only added to the drama of a wonderful night’s sleep in the loft of the new barn.

Many wonderful memories linger from the good times of a barn-raising. The family barn was also a place to go for a moment of quietness and solitude or, if a heavy rain cloud threatened, the barn was a good place to listen to the falling rain. And always, as the heavy rain fell on the wooden shingles, no time was ever better for a good and peaceful afternoon nap.

Our youth of today have missed a lot by not having a barn in which to play and frolic. Our society would be much richer had more barns been available during the past two decades.

So, as I pass the fallen and crumbled old barns around the countryside, a feeling of sadness comes upon me. I know that once the piles of rotting timbers around the country communities were once places of fun and happiness.

Memories, memories…

(Singleton, the author of the 1991 book “Of Foxfire and Phantom Soldiers,” passed away at the age of 79 on July 19, 2007. A longtime resident of Monroeville, he was born to Vincent William Singleton and Frances Cornelia Faile Singleton, during a late-night thunderstorm, on Dec. 14, 1927 in Marengo County, graduated from Sweet Water High School in 1946, served as a U.S. Marine paratrooper in the Korean War, worked as a riverboat deckhand, lived for a time among Apache Indians, moved to Monroe County on June 28, 1964 and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from June 28, 1964 to Dec. 14, 1987. He was promoted from the enlisted ranks to warrant officer in May 1972. For years, Singleton’s columns, titled “Monroe County history – Did you know?” and “Somewhere in Time” appeared in The Monroe Journal, and he wrote a lengthy series of articles about Monroe County that appeared in Alabama Life magazine. It’s believed that his first column appeared in the March 25, 1971 edition of The Monroe Journal. He is buried in Pineville Cemetery in Monroeville. The column above and all of Singleton’s other columns are available to the public through the microfilm records at the Monroe County Public Library in Monroeville. Singleton’s columns are presented here each week for research and scholarship purposes and as part of an effort to keep his work and memory alive.)

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