A dedicated barn snoop’s afternoon

The North River Mills shop has virtually no heat and plenty of ventilation. Years ago, someone must have found themselves in a situation similar to mine as there is evidence of newspapers having been put up on the west wall to block the wind. An open lean-to protects this wall from rain and snow. Though I could put up a similar paper barrier, I hesitate to do so. What remnants of the former barrier that still exist and are readable date from World War II; thus I would rather not cover them up or obliterate them. Silly, isn’t it, but that’s how I operate.

A woodstove is a future possibility subject to the landlord’s approval. For now, I have a kerosene heater that helps to make things bearable and even enjoyable as long as I keep moving. The job at hand is the restoration of a late-50s Farmall Cub for a customer in Rockland in Warren County, Va. I was to be painting some of the larger parts, dangling them from the Old Black Truck’s crane outside the shop. Though I like the way that tractor paint behaves at colder temperatures on Saturday, Nov. 23, a stiff breeze began to stir which would make using the spray equipment nearly impossible.barn

The other job in progress was the repair of a lock (as in lock, stock and barrel) of a late 19th/early 20th century Neumann Brothers double-barrel shotgun. This is very precise work — better done at the heated shop at Hanging Rock.

Some of these older shotgun barrels are not suitable for modern ammunition and are usually distinguishable by the visible pattern caused by their having been made from strips of steel hammer-welded around a mandrill. They may also be stamped “Laminated” or “Damascus.” However, I wasn’t familiar with the phrase “Warranted Government Test” engraved on the barrels. The spiral pattern was absent and indications were that the gun was suitable for modern ammunition. Still, I wanted to get some more expert opinions before loading up a high brass rifled slug. In light of the cold wind, Mountain Ammunition Supplies, in Augusta, with its ever-steaming coffee pot seemed the next logical destination. I closed the shop and left.

The experts at Mountain Ammunition Supplies all seemed to concur with my theory but admitted to not being “official” gunsmiths, so the jury is still out though I expect a good verdict.

I headed toward home, but as I entered the village of Pleasant Dale, I noticed the signs announcing the Squirrel Fest. Oh yes, I thought. I had planned to attend this gathering and farm tour but had canceled my plans as we were supposed to be en route to the Palmetto State on that date. Our departure was delayed, but I forgot to alter my plans. Anyway, here it was.

A sign directed visitors where to turn. The driveway forks around an old-time roadside farm stand adorned with pumpkins, gourds and a stack of firewood. This stand, like the remnants of tourist cabins along U.S. 50, is a reminder of the highway’s colorful past prior to the advent of the Interstate highway system.

This 85 acres, formerly the Potter dairy farm, had long interested me simply by its appearance from the highway. In that particular setting, the barn contrasted itself from the sky beyond causing it to resemble one of those pen and ink drawings by rural antiquities guru Eric Sloane. (Sloane’s books include: “A Museum of Early American Tools,” “Diary of an Early American Boy,” “A Reverence for Wood,” “Early American Barns” and “Our Vanishing Landscape”).

For several years prior to the farm being acquired by the Big Rigg’s Outfit, there seemed to be relatively little activity there. This only served to heighten my interest as I wondered what treasures of the past the old buildings and surrounding landscape might hold. As a dedicated barn snoop, I was finally going to get a look.

The sign, which also reminded us to “watch traffic,” actually directed eastbound visitors into the wrong fork. This necessitated a complicated asterisk turn in a larger than average truck, probing with the rear bumper into U.S. 50 traffic on a blind turn. All was forgotten, though, when I finally got straightened out and drove anxiously up the hill toward the barn.

After finding a place to park, I walked toward the activity under the roof of the open barn. There, among stoves, pots and other large volume food preparation equipment, I met Calvin “Big Rigg” Riggleman. I hadn’t talked with him since he was about 12. As the years passed, a good country diet, a full beard and a few years in the Marine Corps combined to give him a commanding presence.

Since I needed to make preparations for our trip south, I was unable to stay for the farm tour so decided to conduct my own. Calvin gave me permission to look around while several healthy, energetic teens and 20-somethings as well as Calvin’s dad, Gary, a tough old buzzard, hurried to make preparations for the event.

Though I had missed seeing the barn in the neglect and abandonment stage — the condition favored by barn snoops — I still wasn’t disappointed. Central to the changes made to the barn is a sizable cold storage room (Well, if you’ve been in a larger cold storage lately, then you must be in the fruit business). The cold storage held only relatively few boxes and field crates full of produce as most of the harvest was long past.

At the time, it was keeping an ample supply of beer at the proper temperature. This facility seemed to declare, “This is agriculture and it’s prospering.”

The rest of the barn tastefully avoided a “moderne” theme. A fruit grader stood waiting for the next harvest. A large stack of firewood covered the inside of the north wall awaiting more contemporary duty. Wooden field crates were stacked neatly about. An antique Jeep reposed with its hood raised. Outside was a big Mahindra 8560 tractor.

I followed the dusty farm road past machinery parked under a row of Chinese elms and a chicken coop, now a storage for planting trays. A hog pen looks like it could have been made from one of those old-fashioned “shotgun” style (so named because you could fire a shotgun into the front entrance and the shot would exit out the back door) tenant houses once used to house itinerant farm laborers.

I climbed still higher between the vegetable fields, some still bearing plastic mulch and turnip greens. My efforts were about to be rewarded in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. At the top of the hill, the pages of my notebook whipping in the frigid wind, I looked past still-green rows of kale, kohlrabi and broccoli. Pines swayed in the distance. Looking south, I saw more overgrown fields being reclaimed for crops. Turning toward the north, I found myself looking down at the village of Pleasant Dale.

Speeding by on U.S. 50 as we do these days, this area seems only to be a stretch of closely spaced houses and a “karate shop” that many of us still refer to as Chuck’s Market. However, from this aerial vantage point, the old town begins to take shape. My curiosity about this once prosperous little town is thus aroused, and I’ll never see that part of U.S. 50 as just another piece of mundane highway again.

Coming back down from the hill, I concluded my tour at an old milking parlor now used to store equipment and as a warehouse. On the outside of the south wall is a large old illuminated clock somewhat in need of restoration.

I’ve finished work on the old gun. After I finish the Farmall, I’ll be looking for another restoration project. Perhaps this clock could be a candidate. After all, if good people are revitalizing farmland and saving it from development, the least that I can do is give them the time of day.

 

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