By Dick Geary
Featured Columnist 

One last look


February 26, 2020

Editor's note: As some of our readers may know, Dick Geary passed away early last week. Dick's recollections of Helmville and the Blackfoot Valley he knew growing up, as well as his accounts of his time Brazil, provided a perspective on both the culture of our area and his own personal foibles. Dick's columns have been a popular feature in several Montana newspapers over the years, and we began running them in 2016. A look through our rather limited archive of his articles revealed one from 2016 that seemed to embody the wistful reminiscences of many of his columns and that also seemed like a fitting way to say farewell.

You can't drive 20 miles in western Montana without seeing a number of old horse barns in various stages of decay. In the horse days they were the hub of every ranch, but now they're rotting, unneeded anachronisms.

They're abandoned and relegated to the role of common sheds, if they're used at all. The stalls that once held big, vigorous teams or good saddle horses now have old bed frames, tattered recliners, and other junk considered too good to throw away.

The barn on the place where I was raised is an anomaly in that it has a good roof and a solid foundation. It's an immense barn, built before 1900 with milled lumber which is unusual in itself. It's over 50 feet tall, with 8,000 square feet of floor space, if you count the loft, which is bigger than a basketball court. It was a perfect place for kids, and we made good use of it. The horses were gone by then, so we made hiding places in the eight double stalls, and shrieked and whooped our way through the old building almost every day.

The twelve milking stanchions were made into lambing jugs for our farm flock of sheep. We kept chickens in the old stud pen and rabbits in what was the carriage house. The barn and the pond behind the house were the centers of our summers. If we weren't at the pond swimming and catching toads, we were in the barn, climbing and hiding. In our teen years we played basketball in the loft, and one winter I spent hours wrestling my bicycle up the stairs, so I could ride all year. That was special.

I'm the only person who goes in that barn, now. Three years ago I adopted an old feral tomcat that I've seen only a half dozen times. Every day I take him some food and every day what I've left is gone.

When I go up the stairs to the interior of the barn, I always glance down at the second step. When I was about 10, I tried to lead a little horse up those steps, but she broke a riser and caught a hind leg.

I had been cautioned numerous times not to take a horse through that door, but I was a kid then, and knew more than any adult. It took me some panicked minutes to get the mare out, but she escaped with only some deep scratches and a limp.

It proved impossible to lie out of the situation. I tried my best, but the lame horse and the broken step betrayed me. I never took a horse up those stairs again.

Once in the barn, I walk past the lambing jugs that once held so much life, then I turn the corner and see the empty stalls. The stairs to the loft are rarely used any more, and the gigantic area, with its 40 foot cathedral ceiling, holds only a pair of great horned owls, that must be on the 3rd or 4th generation by now. This summer there were two adults and three fledglings living in the rafters, and it was nice to know that the old barn has something to shelter.

Further in, there's a small tack room that I fixed up when I was in high school. It was perfect - with places for a half-dozen saddles, plus a work bench and special hooks to hang bridles and other tack. It gave me a lot of pride, back then, but now it holds only a cheap old saddle that's missing an entire stirrup leather, a few chicken feathers, and a lot of dust. I think there's an old saddle pad that I won when I was ten or twelve, but it can stay there, where's it's been for 40 years. The tiny room was wonderful in its time, but I don't go in there any more. There's not enough room for an old man and his memories.

So I leave food for my feral cat and stare at the stalls where we saddled horses. I remember the assertive thumps their shod hooves made on the planks when we led them in and out. There's no other sound like that.

So I leave the barn to a pair of ancient owls, a decrepit tom cat, and the echoes of the children who abandoned the barn to pursue their respective dystopian futures.

I stuck my head into the loft this morning. The owls were there, so life is good – or at least it continues.


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