All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 1990

Building a Barn

Hannah Lapp is a dairy farmer and writer in Cassadaga, New York. This article is excerpted from a book she is writing about her family and their experiences as farmers and farm workers.

One day early in 1974, Dad said, “Let’s build a new barn and milk 80 cows!” And not one of us offered to knock down the suggestion. It was just as though we were all waiting for him to say it, so we could add to it our own hidden aspirations. Everyone, from Dad who worked nights at a canning factory, down to the littlest child, Nathan, who felt sure he needed more to do, was itching to embark on a project big enough to accommodate more of our energy.

Milking 20 cows didn’t come close to employing all of us at our home in Cassadaga, in western New York. My sisters Rebecca and Dinsilla still worked night shifts at the ice cream factory, and kept wishing they could get away from it. Dad was an A.I. (artificial insemination) technician for American Breeders Service besides holding his factory job. The older girls still worked for produce farmers in the lake area off and on during most months of the year,

What we really wanted was work at home, and it had been only Dad’s reluctance to operate on borrowed money that held us back this long. If we were going to invest in a large barn and silo, and buy the cows and equipment to go with it, we were going to do some thorough planning first.

Our labor resources were not questioned, for there wasn’t one of us in our family of 13 who wasn’t anxiously waiting to fill his role in making the operation run. It couldn’t have mattered less to us that Dad said there would be no wages paid. We took for granted that we would share jointly in the rewards of an enterprise jointly run.

Money was a more complex matter. We had never done something like borrow $20,000 for a barn, $10,000 for a silo, and another $20,000 for machinery and good cows.

“Why not just 50 cows.?” suggested the more skeptical family members. But the voices of those who were determined to quit their off-farm jobs and work at home were louder. We debated and calculated hard and long. Finally a compromise was reached that set the herd size at 60 cows and silo at 70 feet high by 20 feet wide. The total investment would be $50,000.

The design for the barn was developed step by step through studying the barns of other farmers and listening to their comments. Although Dad wasn’t an experienced architect, we determined to take advantage of our own family labor by building the whole thing ourselves. My brother Chris had a good head for calculations. We girls, down to the littlest ones, believed ourselves capable of becoming construction workers, and Dad expressed no reservations in the matter.

Above the southern rim of our valley stretches a 200-acre forest with dozens of different kinds of trees, some of which could be used for lumber. The previous owner of our place had taken out all the marketable timber, but had left the hemlocks. Dad took to the woods with chain saw, tractor, logging chains, and tape measure to cut the lumber trees we needed for our building project.

Logging Begins

Logging began that summer. Often Dad had only one of us younger children as an assistant. At nearly 9 years old, I thought myself just the right size to take this position, and somehow, perhaps because I was not yet bound to many farm duties, I got what I wanted. I followed Dad to the woods day after day, a serious, dedicated helper on the one hand, and on the other hand an altogether frivolous youngster carried away by the charms of the deep forest. I carried tools and even the chain saw for him and every time a tree was felled, I held the end of a rule in place as he marked out 20-foot lengths on its trunk.

Dad stripped the logs of all branches, hooked them to heavy chains, and dragged them out with the tractor. I followed the path of the logs until we reached the wood’s edge, then stopped in the shade to rest while Dad dragged them on down over the fields and hills for home. He usually returned after about 15 minutes, leaving me just enough time to do a little exploring or carve letters into a tree trunk.

The “silo men,” as we children called the five-man construction crew that erected our silo, came in late July. The excavating had been done for the barn, but the silo was the first to rise from the ground and let the world know that cows would live there.

The silo men raised their scaffold ever higher, and the soft concrete mix now had to be hoisted far up the silo wall before being dumped into forms to constitute more wall. We children observed their work day by day and wondered how they could tolerate the height as they pushed toward the top of the silo% 70 feet. Metal steps were one by one concreted into the silo wall, creating a ladder from bottom to top of the structure. One of the silo men used to shock us with his stunt of rapidly descending the silo with only his hands catching the ladder rungs while his feet slid down alongside.

By mid-August, the 70 feet of silo were up, and the figures of the men as they worked on top looked dwarfed and distant. Atop the rim of the silo, they erected a ten-foot dome roof in bold green and white stripes. The silo now waited to be fed with 550 tons of corn silage. Since chopping that much corn by hand wasn’t feasible, we bought a mechanical chopper to do the job, and a brand-new, 70-horsepower tractor to pull it.

Laying the Foundation

The blueprint for our barn was shaped over many hours of time, hours spent by Dad, Chris, and my sister Lydia, crouched over big sheets of paper spread out on the living room floor. Dad may have been the head planner, but Lydia, who was a teacher, had to help with complicated figures, and 15-year-old Chris’s natural ability with mathematics was invaluable. It was Chris, who under the occasional supervision of a contractor, laid most of the thousands of concrete blocks comprising our barn walls’ 140-foot length and 40-foot width.

The older sisters picked tomatoes that fall, so Barbara, then 13, also learned the masonry trade. She and Rachel made the mortar by mixing sand and water with cement powder. They tried hard to get the mortar’s consistency just right with the proper amounts of each ingredient. Sometimes the mix turned out too hard, or so soft that the block-layer rejected it. Sometimes they mixed too much at a time, forcing the crew to work overtime to use it up before it dried. When they succeeded in turning out a batch that pleased everyone, they called it a “jolly mix.”

After the block wall was up, we were forced either to accustom ourselves to working at steadily increasing heights or be left out of the game. Since no able-bodied Lapp worker was going to accept being left out, we one by one timidly climbed up to try the eight-foot wall. “You’ll learn,” Dad assured us. “Here, hold this.” He placed the end of a measuring tape into Nancy’s hand as she hesitatingly tested her balance atop the wall. Dad strode off toward the far end of the barn, drawing out the length of the tape. And then he did not stop. “Follow me,” he casually called over his shoulder as he went on, holding one end of the tape as Nancy held the other. Dad’s pace seemed impossible to match, and Nancy at first tried to draw back. But pulling against him upset her balance so badly that she found it was best to just keep running after him, all the way to the end. After such an introduction, she had little trouble with working atop the barn wall.

Two ceiling beams, consisting of 2×8′s nailed together four thick, were to be set up the length of the barn. “Now, how will this be done?” was always the question when we came to each new task, especially such a job as raising 140-foot-long beams to ceiling height and supporting them with posts. As with every other step in the barn-building process, the workers gathered to hear ideas exchanged and together improvised a plan. First, board racks were put on the bed of our old pickup truck, and the box stacked full of hay bales that reached almost to the barn ceiling height. The truck was parked inside the barn walls, and the 2×8′s constituting the beam were nailed together in their proper position atop the load of hay. As more length was added to the giant beam, the truck crept slowly forward, and temporary supports were placed under the finished portions. Several work: crs carefully lifted the weight of the beam’s free end each time the truck moved forward.

Permanent pillars were made for the beams using old six-inch metal pipe which we filled with cement. Each pipe was planted in a five-gallon bucketful of concrete and then sunk into a hole in the ground before it took the weight of the beam. Fifteen of these pillars, under each of the two beams, were to suffice to hold up some 100 tons of hay which we would some day store in the loft.

Snow fell on October 2nd that year, giving us qualms about completing our construction project before winter closed in. The work was not in professional hands and progressed but little by little. One late October day when the sun shone and work was frenzied, the noise of a honking horn grabbed our attention. It was Drusilla, Nancy, and Lavina arriving home from work and announcing with a good deal of ballyhoo that the tomato picking season was over. After that the barn took shape fast.

Raising the Roof

Each rafter for the gambrel roof was nailed together atop the barn ceiling, then painstakingly balanced by a team of seven workers as it was raised to its permanent upright position. The roof peak rose 20 feet from the ceiling, or loft floor, of the barn. The loft floor as yet was just a temporary network of boards strewn over the joists. The workers learned to move about with confidence over these boards. Actually, it was too easy for confidence to take the place of caution. Lavina once landed a foot too close to the end of a loose board and it tipped, reared up, and whacked her forehead with the other end. She slipped down between the floor joists but caught herself at chest level and hauled herself back up so fast that only a good bruise on her ribs remained as evidence of her sudden descent.

Each family member had to make his own sacrifices in the rush to close up our barn before winter settled in. Off-time was reduced and even our usual Sunday and evening Bible study hours had to be compromised. At meal time and breaks, there were just a few minutes to relax before someone would get up to sound the action slogan “Barn ain’t done yet!” sending a fresh surge of motivation exploding through our veins. With one accord, the group would be dashing for the construction site, the girls’ skirts flying . . . and the chorus of a half-dozen hammers would sound again. Sometimes, the workers were served their snack of hot chocolate and popcorn while perched atop some board ten feet above ground level.

Barn rafters were done in a week, and laths were nailed across them, introducing the workers to steadily greater heights. By the time they reached the peak of the barn, they could monkey up and down the laths with skill and confidence. Rachel, next oldest to me, was the youngest Lapp to brave the barn roof.

When we started to nail on the tin, neighbor Howard Spinier and his son appeared unexpectedly to speed up the process. Although they were initially skeptical of the roof heights, their strength and carpentry abilities proved to be a boost that cut the roofing time in half. It was with great relief that we closed up the roof, for stormy weather was in the forecast.

December came before the gutters were all dug and forms nailed in place for concreting the floor of our barn. Starting with the milk-house floor, we began pouring concrete on December 3rd and took until January 1st to finish. No one took a count of the wheelbarrows full of soft cement that were wheeled over plank tracks to be emptied into board forms. But the concreting days, known for their long hours of strenuous work, were counted one by one. The advance of truly cold weather was cause for alarm; even with portable heaters running inside the barn, it was difficult some days to keep the cement mixture from freezing before it hardened.

The feat of driving a wheelbarrow weighed down with 250 pounds of gently rolling cement mix while keeping it from tipping or sliding off the board track demanded such a level of combined strength and skill that at first some of the girls thought it impossible. To spill your load was just out of the question—but so was refusing to try. One by one the girls conquered the challenge until they found their uncertainty replaced by sheer anticipation over the daily arrival of the Dunkirk Ready Mix trucks. Since the truck driver charged for his waiting time, the cement forms had to be ready on schedule, as well as several wheelbarrows with their drivers.

“If there’s one downright ugly task,” Dad says now in looking back, “it’s getting concrete forms just right, and on schedule for the cement truck. Boy, I remember how it was when they bulged, or shifted too! How did we figure we could do it?”

“Barn Ain’t Done Yet!”

One of the ways we got it done was by working late into the night, lanterns overhead lighting the work area where Dad, Morn, Chris, and sometimes Drusilla, Nancy, and Lavina bent over trowels, hammers, boards, and levels, smoothing concrete and making forms for more. Ten o’clock at night was a very poor time to run into problems with your work, too. Lavina hated to hear Dad grumble, which he was apt to do at that hour, so she tried hard to keep things running right and not complain herself. If she did bother with talking about the length of her workday, one of her sisters would probably just quickly retort, “Barn ain’t done yet!”

Except for electrical and plumbing jobs which required professional supervision, the barn building was completed January 1, 1975. That afternoon, a blizzard swept into Cassadaga, enveloping us in fresh levels of cold and snow.

On January 9, we led our milk cows one by one down the road from the old barn and began, before a crowd of spectators and with some appropriate fanfare, to milk cows in the New Barn. Since our new bulk tank was not yet in operating condition, we had to lug all the milk back up to the old barn for a few days. We just couldn’t wait longer to take our cows out of the crowded old quarters and see them in their new stalls. The last six months of labor had centered around getting them into a clean, spacious, and comfortable setting where they would kindly reward us with returns on our investment.

Beyond the teenage enthusiasm, aspirations, and innocence involved in the development of our 60-cow dairy, and beyond the sentiments of a family longing to share together in an honorable enterprise, there loomed some cold, hard facts. Cassalea Farms was now an $80,000 business whose success depended on more than just good intentions and hard, honest labor. Each family member over 18 now worked under a $10,000 debt.

It is such figures as these, and much bigger ones, that rob the simplicity from farming. In handling large sums of money, we make ourselves more than just common laborers. We become investors and businessmen, and the farmers who fail to acknowledge this and neglect the discretion of an investor are among those who eventually go down the drain hollering for society, the banks, and government to bail them out.

The investment per worker in our case was lower than in most other dairy operations we know, because we continued to rely on hand labor where most others used machines. But there also are farmers who have readily outdone us in keeping debt down. The frugal, debt-free, and therefore successful kind may be rare nowadays, but those that remain are farmer-businessmen as dedicated, tenacious, and shrewd as ever there have been.

There are also those farmers who consider their choice of occupation so important that they are willing to ask others to finance their efforts to keep going at a loss. This is where the rights of others enter the picture. Strong sentiments toward working the land and owning animals can be respected, but letting these sentiments rule the handling of large investments should be done at the risk of the operator, and not at the expense of American tax payers.

  • Hannah Lapp is a dairy farmer and writer in Cassadaga, New York.