New season. New life. But not for Minnesota's aging countryside

Commentator Peter Smith
Commentator Peter Smith.
MPR Photo/Sarah Fleener

Maybe it's spring, or maybe I've turned another one of those middle-aged corners, but I've been feeling a little blue about Minnesota's old dairy barns lately. They seem to be on the way out, and it's a shame.

You know the kind I'm talking about: Big old time barns with room for the whole herd downstairs and room for a winter's worth of hay up above.

I'll be out in the country, driving somewhere, and I'll come over a rise, and there it will be: another swaybacked eighty-plus year old behemoth. Rotting. Paint peeling. Hay mow doors hanging on broken hinges. The whole structure ten years beyond repair and falling in on itself. And a little piece of my heart will fall in on itself too.

There was a time when the landscape was dotted with barns like these. And silos. And maybe a crossroads church or a two-room schoolhouse or a small town water tower on the horizon. Now this.

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Five generations of someone's family farmed out of that barn. It was morning chores, evening chores, with a full day's work in between. Day after day, year after year, decade after decade.

Lord-only-knows how many generations of cows it housed, but twenty-plus generations of barn cats came and went. Not house cats. Barn cats. Scuffed up, mean, half-wild things. Cats that scared the family dog. They kept the local rodent population under control, in exchange for a pan of fresh-from-the-cow milk now and then.

I can't drive by an old barn without thinking of all the farm reports and milking-time polka music that came over the five tube AM radio that sat on the milk room window sill - music and news from the small town radio station ten miles off. It was always the same station. Day after day, year after year, decade after decade, the radio dial never changed.

The old barns are disappearing now. It's the end of an era, I suppose - just another in a long list of inevitable changes. Going the way of our old sports stadiums. It's cheaper to build new than it is to maintain them.

I'm going to miss them.

It's spring though. The section roads are less icy and more drivable. Think I'll grab a handful of polka CDs and head out to say good bye one more time.