It is this time of year when the rural life comes alive with harvesting of the crops and busy with activities that help our preparations for winter. We are also busy with celebrations, like Fall Oktoberfests, pioneer days, thrashing shows, turkey bingos and many other folksy events that focus on the roots of rural life.
This always puts me in a reflective state of mind. What will we remember? What events are those that we will someday mull over in our memories that will cause us to say, “Thank God, I’ve been Blessed! That’s why I’m proud to be from the country!”
Rural life in central Minnesota is filled with traditions of the past and many times, like in my story, traditions of the days gone by are being resurrected. There is a feeling that our culture today is not slowing down: it is moving away from relationship, from taking time to reflect, from spending time in conversation with real live people. We are busy. We live in a chaotic world that is owned by production and money.
About eight years ago, my brother Jeff who raises a small beef cow operation in Gilman, Minn., had a small dilemma. Hay was in short supply, cows were hungry and the bills continued to flow in. Instead of buying hay, we decided to clean out the hayloft in his barn. The barn was filled over the years with broken square bails and waist-deep chaff. It was time to share with the cows and clean out the barn. What a blessing this turned out to be. We discovered, under all of that hay, a gem of a floor. One good enough to create new memories for the entire neighborhood.
Imagine this picture: You drive up in the yard of an old-fashioned farm site. The newer farms put their buildings almost on top of each other whereas generally the old farm sites spaced their buildings and created a well-thought out village of farm buildings. The yard was spacious for the thrashing events and neighborhood gatherings. It is a unique layout. Big yards for parking, lots of lawn and a occasional big massive white oak tree as a focal point.
You scan the yard and look for the largest of the barns. It has a string of lighting along the front side directing your eyes all the way to the big white barn door. Tied to a grain wagon and old John Deere tractor is a massive welcome sign. On your walk to the Barn, you are greeted with a bonfire surrounded by chairs creating a small intimate crowd of people staring into the fire as they visit and laugh.
The smell of wood smoke is the first to relax and greet your senses. Then you enter into the barn and climb the hay barn steps to a glorious array of sights and sounds. A treat for your senses. The smell of popcorn, the sight of straw bails lining the outer walls, old-fashioned big bulb Christmas lights strung from side to side to trigger a feeling of a peaceful ambiance. There’s also paper feed sacks with local advertising hanging on the walls of the roof of the barn, auction bills for neighborhood farm auctions hanging for people to read, tables where many of the guests will show of their homemade cooking and baking talents for all to eat.
The boards of the old barn come alive as cowboy boots stomp to the music of a polka or a waltz or the Cotton-eye Joe. In central Minnesota, it is a live local Polka band, of course, that is stuck in the corner while this 100-ft long barn is transformed, for the night, from a working hayloft into a dancehall. It is filled with some 300 plus crowd of intimate family and friends.
And we dance the night away! The people, young and old alike, our families, our friends, our neighbors and even the local Catholic priests come and enjoy. This has become an annual family tradition. The great news is that our family is not alone. Each year, I hear of new Barn Dances beginning all over the Midwest for the same reasons mentioned here.
In the old days, a barn dance was not a rarity, but done every time a new barn or shed needed to be christened in our area. A local Minnesota artist named Ken Zylla once painted a similar image and called it “Country Barn Dance”. The stories and common experience of people meeting for the first time happened often at the local shed or barn or dance halls that use to be a prominent fixture in every community in central Minnesota.
In our Catholic rural life culture, let us not forget the past, let us not forget to slow down, let us not forget our farming roots, let us not take for granted the people around us, let us not forget to be thankful — and let us not forget to take the time to create great memories that will be talked about for years to come. Amen!
Fr. Gregory J. Mastey is pastor of a four-parish cluster in the Holdingford Area, Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn.