Every house should have a great highlight, and one of this farm’s is the bats in the barn. If the kids are bored, or if you’re not quite ready for visitors to leave, “Who wants to see the bats?” always reels ’em in. Even the bat-phobic generally wind their way around the John Deere, the ancient generator, and 150 years of miscellany to get to the loft stairs for a peek.
Now, the loft stairs have certainly seen better days. They’re probably original to this incarnation of the barn, circa 1860, which was built from the timbers of previous barns. You can clearly see the cut-outs in the beams where they had first fit into a different puzzle. It really makes perfect sense. By the mid-1800’s, Connecticut was pretty much deforested. Who had chestnut trees large enough to fell for new timbers any more? And even if they did, why waste time cutting and curing the lumber when a perfectly good timber was available, albeit a bit notched and maybe not exactly the right size but close enough? Just cut off the rot, the rest is fine.
While the barn was constructed of recycled parts, probably the simple and steep stairs leading to the hay loft were new in 1860. They’re still serviceable, but over time the treads have become a bit creaky, and watch that third step: it’s cracking down the center, just step on the side of it.
When a visitor makes it to the loft, the first thing that strikes him is how utterly dark it is up there. The brilliant shafts of light, like lasers through the dusty air, make it even harder to adjust. But then the old buggy comes into view, and then my uncle’s ancient radio equipment, all metal, wire and glass tubes. And then the rest of the jumble appears, as if the haze suddenly clears. It’s an amazing place, that hayloft.
My grandparents bought the farm from its original owner, old Farmer Ames, who died before moving out of the place. In fact, he was found newly deceased down the hill in the old forge, his trusty dog barking for help. So much of what was in that hayloft dated back to his time. His tools, carts, buggies and sledges, enormous whiskey jugs, big grinding wheels for sharpening tools, a three-legged contraption for mending saddles (one leg broken), and lots and lots of sleigh bells. Do you know why sleighs had bells? Because they ran silently, and people and animals would just step out in front of them. Maybe electric cars should have bells, too? But I digress…
So here we are, up in the dark loft. After a few moments of taking in the time capsule of junk in that loft, the second impression hits like a ton of bricks. Even through the worst winter cold, the overwhelming stench of bat urine, 150 years of it, has an effect like smelling salts. And the crunching under your feet? A carpet of bat droppings, little b.b. sized things, from one end of the barn to the other under the peak. Um, you might not want to lean on that…bats are not particular about what they poop on.
A tip for you young bat enthusiasts on how to locate bats: look for the most recent pile of bat droppings. Of course, it helps if you go to visit them every once in a while, which we do, so you know which piles are old and which are new. Find the newest pile, and look straight up.
The type of bats we have are Little Brown Bats, and little they are. They actually are very cute, if you have good enough eyesight to see them. Their favorite spot is tucked between the ridgepole and the wooden slats that the roofing is laid upon. Sometimes there will be a bunch of them huddled together, and sometimes there will be just one. They also like to hide in empty knots of wood or behind broken slats, their little faces poking out looking at you with curiosity. And if you still can’t spot them, then just click quickly with your tongue and listen for their answer. You’ll hear them, the little social butterflies. They chatter amongst themselves constantly.
Bats throughout the world are becoming endangered, and the bats in New England are no different. Of course, habitat loss has taken its toll, but another big bat-killing culprit is a fungus called white-nose syndrome. It can be found on just about every continent. The barn colonies like ours are a last hold-out. Our colony, knock on wood, has so far been white-nose free. In August our wildlife-rehabilitator friend Kasha released more than a dozen bats into our healthy colony of about 30. Unfortunately, it was just a week before the big hurricane blew through, after which the colony numbered only 15. It never occurred to me before that a storm could wipe out wildlife.
150 years of storms, sun and gravity also takes a toll on barns. It was determined that both barns (the tobacco shed below and the upper barn with the bats) required immediate restoration. The state has a matching-grant program to help preserve scenic historic barns, and ours (luckily) qualified. We used a small company called Bring Back Barns that used period-appropriate methods of construction. The tobacco shed was done first, and the upper barn was done this summer. And like our predecessor, we used recycled barn timbers for both projects. In the early 70’s during the rage for barn board, the dilapidated cow barn was dismantled and enormous timbers stored in the lower floor of the tobacco barn. It proved to be a tremendous boon for both barn projects.
Before the barn guys could start on the upper barn, it had to be emptied. The ancient Simplicity tractor was coaxed to life and housed elsewhere. Mysterious crates revealed cushy mouse nests made from everything imaginable. There were also some treasures–a delicate blue and white china tea set, for example. There were also the house’s original hand-carved fireplace mantles (the fireplaces being torn out as part of the 1940’s “modernization” to steam heat), and a couple of antique wooden beds. I wasn’t there to witness it, but my mother tells with great relish a story about my brother-in-law hefting a header board down those creaky stairs (watch the third step)–only to squeal like a girl when he spotted a bat hanging from the carving!
The bats did OK with the restoration. With the exception of the few days when the outer walls were removed, they remained in the barn throughout. Even with the noise and bright light, they much preferred their old barn to the beautiful Audubon Society bat house we erected in the garden. That bat house remains slighted and unoccupied. Adding insult to injury, a small woodpecker (hairy or downy–I never remember which is which) has determinedly jackhammered a hole in the side of the box. Guess he hasn’t realized the box has no bottom.
Question: my mother and I have the same recurring dream. Have you ever had this one? You’re in a familiar house and suddenly discover rooms you never knew were there. Well, that barn always did seem larger on the outside than on the inside. And as it was emptied, much to my mother’s surprise, two horse stalls appeared along the back wall, completely jammed with gardening tools and feed bins.
One improvement we did make to the barn was installing some reclaimed windows to add light to both stories. We were afraid at first that the light would drive the bats out (not a bad thing, to my father’s mind–sixty years of bat poop were enough for him). But the bats just sort of adjusted to it. We also added a diamond-shaped “bat hole” in the loft’s south wall where the wood siding had previously gapped. The plan is for the bats to finish out the summer and migrate this fall. The we’ll cover the bat hole with a new bat house (sans woodpecker hole) large enough to house the whole colony. When the bats return next Mother’s Day, they should find a nice cozy home in a familiar place. And Dad? He’ll be happy, too.