For the past several weeks The Times-Gazette has published stories authored by Robert Kroeger, a retired Cincinnati area dentist who has painted 11 barns in Highland County, among other Ohio counties, and plans to paint more.
As Mr. Kroeger visits each barn he tries to find the story behind it, then writes the story to be placed with the painting, so that when the barn disappears from the landscape one day, its story will not be lost.
Like many of the stories in “Farm and Ranch Living” magazine that my farther-in-law has had mailed to our home for years, and that I read pretty much from cover to cover, Mr. Kroeger’s stories tell the tale of life lived on a farm and how those barns were at the center of it all.
I did not grow up on a farm. I grew up about 4.5 blocks from the center of town – closer if you knew which alleys and backyards to cut through. But from the time I was in the fifth grade until I was out of high school, a barn was near the center of my life, too.
The barn belonged to our neighbors, Ed and Cathy Daniels. It had two stories and was smaller than some of the old barns you see on farms, but larger than some, too. The first story floor was concrete. The second story floor was wood.
I do not know the barn’s original use, but long before I came along the top floor had been turned into a basketball court. The lower floor was mostly for storage.
When we moved in next door after my first week of fifth grade, no one lived in the house the Daniels family eventually moved into, and the barn had evidently been lonely for a while. That changed almost overnight.
As soon as some neighbor kids told us there was a basketball court on the second floor, an army could not have kept us out. In the blink of an eye the half-inch layer of bat poop and dust was gone, the cockeyed rim was straightened out, the foul line lanes were repainted, and the lone light bulb at the top of the barn was replaced.
While it was mostly a basketball court to us, it served almost any purpose a youngster could dream up. It was used as a clubhouse of sorts, a fort, a hiding place, a place to stay a little more warm in the winter, a campsite, and pretty much an all around refuge.
I have told stories before of the great tomato fight we had in and around the barn, how sometimes someone would land too hard and have a leg painfully break through the flooring, and how sometimes we’d fix the holes and sometimes we’d play around them.
But this a different story.
Just a couple days ago I was reading a story in “Farm and Ranch Living.” It was about a boy who grew up on a farm and how the barn was his refuge. The author told of how, when he didn’t think his dad was watching, he would ride calves in the barn, swing from the old hay rope hanging from the hay trolley in the haymow, and how he’d let the young calves loose and chase them around the barn, creating a chaotic scene and banging things all over the place.
“Our farm dog and I had tons of fun,” the author said.
Well, that’s what the next-door barn was to me.
By the time I was in my last year or two of high school Mr. Daniels told us we could no longer play in the barn. He meant us no ill will whatsoever, and I am certain that he would have liked to let us play in it forever. But the barn was showing its age, the basketball court had hosted too many games, and it was no longer safe.
But the barn had lots of entryways, so sometimes, when I’d see the Daniels family depart their home, I’d slip into our house, grab a basketball, and sneak off to the barn. The temptation to take a few more shots and find warmth within its friendly confines was more than I could resist.
Like many of the barns Mr. Kroeger has painted, the old barn on Pleasant Street is gone now. When I first heard of its demise several years ago I was disappointed. I would have liked to let its distinct smell waft through my nose one more time, taken one last shot, saved a piece of the floor that brought me so much joy, or at least taken a photograph of the court.
I wish Mr. Kroeger could have painted it. But then again, I can see it clearly without even closing my eyes, and the stories are all mine.
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.