Parting with Treasured Barn Junk

At some unknown point in recent years, the broken chairs, old bedsteads, discarded church pews, and bits and pieces of broken and obsolete farm implements in our barn turned from junk into valuable antiques.

At least, we hope they turned from junk into valuable antiques, not because we need the money, but because if we are going to part with them in an auction, our lengthy sentimental attachment should be worth some respect in the form of dollars, shouldn’t it?

The Miller family has owned this barn and lived on this farm since 1883. (Our family motto is “Semper Inertia,” which means, roughly, “still there.”) Since then, members of this family who remained on the farm – and everyone who could, stayed – have been putting things away in the barn that were too good to throw away, but not good enough to use. It’s a way of thinking. I know, because I’m a Miller. We might want those things someday.

WHEN H.L. MENCKEN wrote derisively of the reluctance to part with “sacred family rubbish,” he was referring mainly to keepsakes – vacation mementos, figurines, scrapbooks, school memorabilia, postcards, pictures – that a family accumulates over the years in a house.

The urge is the same, but a family can accumulate much larger things in a barn, and these things get much dirtier in a barn. Countless generations of starlings, pigeons, raccoons and rodents have treated these things as their home furnishings, and have left many reminders of their residency.

The barn lofts have always been regions for storage, but the departure of the last dairy cattle early in my lifetime obviated the need to store hay, which opened vast new regions to storage.

There’s a little wood-burning cookstove, no higher than your knees, that no one still living ever cooked on. It has one burner plate and an oval flu pipe. Another small stove has a firebox window of tissue-thin mica – not Formica – mica, a transparent mineral. There’s a three-quarter bedstead. Not a twin, not a double, not a queen, not a full; a three-quarter. The only reason I know that is because when we found it in a barn loft, my sister Col. Peggy said that’s what it is. It was a popular bed size 100 years ago.

There’s a one-horse sleigh that probably last jingled bells around 1900. A wooden wagon seat sits in the barn loft atop a massive butchering table that has not been blooded in my lifetime. There are 10-gallon milk cans that once were galvanized, a steel milkstool, and, hanging on the walls, leather harness for the pair of draft horses, Maude and Dot, that Grandfather Miller last drove about 1950.

THE IDEA of having an auction to get rid of – I mean, to reluctantly part with – some of these treasures was mine, but my sisters Queenie and Col. Peggy quickly recognized the rightness of it. I plan to replace the original and badly weathered original pine siding on the east and south sides of the barn. To do that I need to get to the inside of these walls, from the lofts on the south side, and from scaffolding which I will erect on the east. Stuff has to be moved, and there is no place to move it. A friendly auctioneer visited, and looking over this sea of old stuff, pronounced it worthy of an on-site auction. The event is loosely planned for this summer.

Don’t think of this column as an advertisement for an auction. That would be crass and undignified. Think of this as confessional therapy for me, part of the process of letting go of things I thought would be there forever. It is an agonizingly sad goodbye to the family ghosts that haunt each and every broken rocking chair, blunted plow bottom, and rusty scythe.

The fact is, there’s no room to put anything else in the barn. We aren’t running a museum here.


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