Cowiche Calls: A Local History
"Tieton From Hatton Road Looking Northeast"

The Family Farm

That Old Barn[1]

From the very beginning of immigration of Americans to the Yakama Nation barns would mark the farmer’s land. Often the barn was the nerve center of the family farm.

 Photo is of a farm family at haying time along the North Fork of Cowiche Creek, circa 1900

In the early days of Cowiche the horse, mule, or oxen was essential to a successful farm and the barn was generally the place where they were harnessed for work, fed, and sheltered in bad weather.

Coming over the crest of Cowiche mountain in the late eighteen hundreds one could almost count the farms by the many barn roof tops visible. One such barn was found on the farm Michael Austin and his family grew up on at the east end of Cowiche Valley. Mike writes the following story of growing up on that farm over a half century after leaving the Valley.

Michael Austin farm at the east end of Cowiche Valley just beyond the fence line in mid photo

The old faded red barn (center photo above) that still stands as one of the prominent features in the lower Cowiche valley just before it enters the canyon at Weikel has a long and productive history. The fact that it was designed around functional rather than less productive architectural features is probably its salvation. The barn was an essential center piece of any dairy/cattle raising operation in that environ during the late 19th and early 20th century. Although I haven’t researched land deeds or other official documents, from our family experience and what we could learn of its early history it was probably built during the first era of irrigated farming—so probably around 1900—1910. We received our allotment of water from a point off the ditch about a half mile away. The water had to travel by a hand-dug ditch and cross a small ravine by a flume. The water was brought to the high point of our property and from there was used either for flood irrigation or moved by ditch where needed. I think that dates the barn. Our family moved onto the Cowiche farm in the very cold winter of 1948 when there was a foot or two of snow on the ground. My dad continued working in a feed mill in Yakima 10 hours each day after moving to the new farm. Before the Austin’s the farm had been owned by the Overholster family who some years before had sold off the front 10 acres to our neighbor Leroy Brackett. That left only 10 acres which included the barn, house, and outbuildings toward the back of the property, a substantial volcanic rock butte (an inescapable part of any property in our area) and Cowiche Creek which meandered across the very back corner. 

Mark White owned and operated several hundred acres of good bottom land to the south and west of our farm and Lloyd Underwood owned a 20 acre piece between us and Weikel. Brackett’s orchard wrapped around between us and the beginning of Naches Heights. Thus we only had about 4 acres of good hay land. The cows had to scrounge around in the corners and between the rocks for pasture. My dad didn’t realize how little workable land he had bought until the spring thaw and black objects began to appear where he anticipated growing crops. I will never forget his exasperation (not the actual language he used) when he stuck his head into the kitchen and said to my mother, “Fern come out and look at all these damned rocks growing up in my hay field.” 

The primary source of fodder for the cows was alfalfa hay although orchard grass made acceptable hay as well. In the era before hay bailers, it was put up loose which meant that after cutting and drying in the fields it was hauled “loose” into the barn. With the vagaries of weather it was a challenge to leave the hay in the fields long enough to properly dry. In optimum situations, you would rake it into windrows; leave it for a day or two, then turn it; rake into shocks, and finally load it onto a hay wagon. 

A “buck” rake was used to move the drying hay into the windrows. From that point everything was done with a three or four pronged pitchfork. The hay was forked onto a wagon which had a sling laid along its bed. The sling consisted of two chains that created parallel bands that would wrap around the load when it was lifted up into the barn. To get a firmer and bigger load on each trip the younger kids were used as stompers. Of course the hay was never entirely alfalfa; there was always a healthy amount of Canadian thistle, cheat grass barbs, and an occasional cocklebur so it was an itchy- scratchy process.

While we boys always wore jeans, in those days the girls (I had 5 younger sisters) always wore cotton dresses so their legs were exposed to the scratchy hay. Once loaded the wagon was hauled into the barn and dropped in a parallel position along the front of the barn. An integral part of the barn was a metal track that ran along the inside of the ridgepole. A trolley and pulley system ran along this track. It was operated by a long wire cable that ran completely through the barn with an attachment point on the other side. A moving pulley system was lowered and hooked into the sling that ran under the load of hay. Once the team of horses, later a tractor, was unhooked from the wagon it went around to the other side of the barn and hooked on to the opposite end of the cable. A trip rope was attached that followed the load of hay as it went up into the barn and along the overhead track into the hay mow. As the cable on the other side of the barn was pulled by the team or tractor, it tightened the sling around the entire load of hay and when both ends of the sling met it locked into place and then travelled vertically up to the track that carried it into the hay mow. Once the load of hay was centered over the appropriate position in the mow, the trip rope was pulled and the hay dropped into the hay mow.  Then you had to fork it around into the corners and back against the walls to even out the level and make room for the next load. The cable would be unhooked and you would start the cycle all over again. Each trip took about an hour.

The barn had to be very sturdy to handle several tons of hay being lifted and then moved along the inner roof structure and then suddenly released. The person driving the team of horses or operating the tractor often couldn’t see the man holding the trip rope. Timing was essential because when the heavy load of hay was raised to the level of the horizontal track and snapped into the trolley it often gained momentum. If the trip rope man didn’t act quickly enough, a couple tons of hay would reach the far end of the track and slam into the opposing wall. You needed to dump the weight before it reached the end of the track. If the hay was damp or had not been fully cured, its weight was greatly increased. The poor old barn had to withstand the impact of our mistakes as we fine-tuned the system. More than once the whole building shook, but the opposite wall always withstood the shock. The slatted sides also served as a ladder to get up into the mow because usually the chute that was used to drop hay down to feed the animals was blocked.  When the mow was completely full, we often had to use a hay knife to open the chute. There is lots of symbolism in farming as in other professions, but few more powerful than the sense of well-being that you get from a full hay mow. By a quick glance, you could always judge how well-off you were in terms of hay and if you would make it through until spring. We supplemented our hay ground by renting neighboring land now and then for either hay or corn to make silage. So the barn was large enough to support a farming operation of 20 or more acres. It undoubtedly presupposed a large working family. Thank God OSHA didn’t exist then!

When we first moved onto the farm it had evidently not been worked for several years. There were several feet of manure and straw in the stalls (under which most of the harness had fallen and were buried in the frozen mass), and the hay mow was completely empty. The barn was cold and lifeless. There was one old white mare workhorse (appropriately named “Silver”) with sadly overgrown hooves and a pot belly and an ancient black German shepherd dog with grey whiskers. The only equipment was a John Deere farm wagon with faded green paint and an assortment of shafts and single-trees. There was no running water and of course an outhouse. Outbuildings consisted of a corncrib; a chicken house, rickety garage, and a loafing shed with stone stem walls. 

 Photo of the Austin Farm buildings including the barn in the early twenty-first century.

Our house in town had an extra lot and Dad used our war bonds (bought by my brother and I in weekly stamp purchases at school) to buy a milk cow so we arrived on the farm with our first dairy cow and moved in. The barn soon became a warm living place. All that hay stacked above provided perfect insulation and as our herd grew the cows’ body heat always took the edge off the cold. It was drafty but we were adept at the marvelous uses of gunny sacks. Thinking back over the years, it always had a pleasant musty smell. You got used to the aroma of cow manure. Alfalfa hay does have a nice aroma. 

The design of the barn with the slates on either side of the hay mow was a special feature necessitated by farming and raising hay under our weather conditions in Eastern Washington. As mentioned, it took several days to complete the process of drying and working the hay once it was cut and getting it into the barn. Often you were forced to push the process and at times put up hay before it was completely dry. There were several problems that if it was too heavy because of moisture content,  it was very difficult to work; if not properly cured, it would mildew and the cows wouldn’t eat it, and finally there was danger of spontaneous combustion and the hay would catch fire. Barn fires from combustion were a constant worry in that era. So the barn was designed to provide a margin of error and allow partially cured hay to continue drying even after being placed in the barn’s hay mow. It was always a judgment call. Old hands developed a knack for twisting a handful of hay to determine if it was dry enough. But at times you were faced with a difficult dilemma; to take a chance and put up damp hay or leave it on the ground and lose it. If it got too wet and moldy, your only choice was to burn it in order to make way for the next cutting. In a good year we could get three cuttings. Thanks to irrigation that was normally possible in our area.

The barn was well constructed. The supporting strength members were all braced and cross braced and the joints had obviously been made by experienced craftsmen. It had been positioned well on the edge of an underlying rock shelf with the lower portion devoted to mangers and stalls draining any moisture away into Cowiche Creek. Thanks to our dry climate in Eastern Washington the boards are well preserved even after the half century I have been away—it would be like trying to paint a sponge to give it a coat of paint. Having been in the Navy, I know a lot about “sail area” and can see where the slatted design works perfectly to relieve pressure on the upper structure. The vents created by the slats allow prevailing winds to pass easily through the upper part of the building.

 Photo is from Weikel Rd just north and west of Cowiche Creek. Notice how you can see through the barn.

I have vivid memories of when my Dad bravely re-shingled the roof. It was quite a task to throw ropes over the roof (accomplished after many tries) and work off of unstable, swinging planks. I worked with him at Kobernik and Barnes milling company for a year to raise money to finish college. The experience of being a co-worker with my Father was wonderful. We were co-workers, a far different relationship than on the farm where he gave the orders and we carried them out without question. It gave me a chance to ask how and why he did things and understand better the constant apprehension, even fear that he would not succeed in making a living. As a boy in Kansas he had worked now and then on farms. His father worked in the gypsum mines. So most of these tasks, like doing the rigging to shingle the roof 60 feet off the ground; figuring out how to harness an old workhorse who was not too excited about being put back to work; and working the barn’s hay storage system were done with little instruction and no experience.

There were lots of funny stories as we learned farming by trial and error. The Barn was the centerpiece of our life and looking back it provides an unending source of humor. On one occasion when we could see rain clouds forming up the valley, at Mom’s urging, us kids scrambled to get the hay in by ourselves. Dad was at work. We were rushing (by then we were using our old Farm-All tractor) to beat the rain and forked on to the wagon an extra heavy load of hay. I was driving the tractor and my brother was operating the trip rope. I went around to the other side of the barn, hooked on and started pulling the cable. The little old tractor grunted and sputtered and spun its wheels and the front end lifted off the ground but finally the load began to move. I only managed to get about 40 feet on my usual run of 80 feet when Harold, my brother came running round the corner of the barn hollering and waving his hands. The whole load of hay and the wagon were being lifted up into the hay mow. The wagon bed had been pieced together from scrap lumber and had lots of cracks and knotholes. One of the sling chains had solidly wedged into a crack. Now I understood why the tractor was threatening to tip over backwards, and if we jerked the cable loose the wagon would be wrecked and probably the tractor. With my heart in my throat I slowly eased the tractor into reverse and slipping the clutch managed to ease backwards. Harold coaxed the wagon back into its correct and safe position. We then had to unload the entire load of hay, clear and re-lay the sling and then reload the wagon. It was a bitter lesson that “haste makes waste.” Of course, our dad would have killed us.

On another occasion Harold and I, like many kids our age, had a small hoard of fire crackers left over from the 4th of July which we used for various innovative projects now and then. We only managed to operate a “Class C” dairy farm since we didn’t have the necessary equipment to operate a “Grade A” dairy. So we sold cream to a co-op creamery in Yakima and used the skim milk to feed pigs and raise calves. There was always plenty of milk left over and in time our inventory of farm cats grew to the high twenties. There was a particularly arrogant “Tom” who was part of the problem and so we got the bright idea of persuading him to go elsewhere. After a lengthy process of gaining his confidence—through bribery—we fastened a fire cracker to his tail with rubber bands. (Being the youngest, I always seemed to be the holder on these projects). Everything went perfectly after the fire cracker went off except that “Tom” didn’t head out of town, but made for the barn. We saw this terrified cat with smoking tail disappear into an open barn door. After frantic searching, we still couldn’t find him and had to assume that he had climbed up into the hay mow. We had to endure several terrifying hours waiting to see if the barn would go up in smoke and to know our fate. Some thought was given to quietly packing our bags and fleeing before Dad got home. He would have killed us for sure.

So as we enter our twilight years, it is reassuring to know that the barn is still standing and has the bright prospect of playing such a positive role in lives of succeeding families in our little valley. Most importantly it is a lasting tribute to the craftsmanship of humble men over a hundred years ago who took pride in their thoughtful work and created such a legacy. It would be nice to think that perhaps some of our efforts will prove to be as worthwhile.

Thanks to Mike Austin and his story of the old Austin Barn a drive along Weikel Rd will now have memories of a young teenage boy toiling in the old faded red barn down by the crick.

[1]  All but the first two and last paragraphs are written by Mike Austin a graduate of Highland High School in 1956. The first two paragraphs and the last paragraphs were added by the staff of COWICHE CALLS. The photos contained in this article are from the library of COWICHE CALLS. At some point a profile of the author will be added to the website of COWICHE CALLS.
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