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FARM LIFE ALONG THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY

1. The Big Red Barn

Written circa 1985

 

The big, old, red barn on the north side of U.S. 30, now called Lincoln Road, in Whiteside County, Ill., looks about the same from the road as it did nearly 130 years ago. But look closely; there have been a few changes to the exterior and many changes inside, according to stories of the Good Old Days—changes that have come one by one as farming methods changed.

 

 

L.A. Abbott clears snow in front of the corncrib and the big red barn.

 

The farm has been in the Abbott family since patent to Benjamin Abbott, on July 27, 1848. He was the fifth generation from George Abbott, who came to America in 1637. Perhaps the continued


interest in Hereford cattle relates to George who was born in Hertfordshire, England, in 1615.

Originally the barn was a rectangular building about 60 by 30 feet, but as conditions changed, several additions were made. Fifteen feet were added along all the north side to accommodate cattle, which increased the hay storage capacity also. Another fifteen-foot addition on the southeast corner of the barn made room for a stairway to the haymow above the grain bins. They were in the center of the building, east of the driveway that would accommodate loads of grain or hay. Big metal doors have replaced the original wooden doors.

In those early days, horses were a necessity and valuable, deserving the warmest quarters in cold weather. Cattle were important, too, but usually got second choice. As the barn was designed, there were four double stalls and two single stalls for the horses along the east side, box stalls, with heavy wooden pegs on the wall behind to hang each horse’s harness. Along the colder, north, side of the barn were five double box stalls and five stanchions for cattle, with gutter for cleaning and an exit door to the west. In the original plan, the entire west side of the barn, from floor to roof was for hay, a good insulation from the cold winds. Loose hay took lots of space, as baled forage hadn’t been “invented” yet.

The barn was built on a foundation of limestone rock from a nearby quarry. A plank floor was laid over the rock, easier on the feet of animals and easier to clean than a dirt or rock floor would have been. By the time the plank floor had worn out from use, concrete had come into use and gradually the floors were modernized. A windmill and tank a few feet to the north provided water for livestock. When electricity became available here in 1936, the water system was changed, but the windmill was left for use in emergencies.

The horses are long gone. The last team left with the advent of the first corn picker. Maud and Topsy, a beautiful, willing, matched team of roan Belgians, and Celia and Oscar, an ordinary team (one gray and one black, and smart enough to follow a corn row), were the last replaced by tractors.

The cattle are not stanchioned as they were when they came in 1909. Cattle sheds with feed and water handy replaced the use of barn space and feed boxes. Fencing now is different than it was 100 years ago. Modern feeding systems save time and energy. The wooden 30-foot silo, high as the barn roof, built in the early 1900s seemed a wonderful way to store winter feed but soon became obsolete and was taken down. Some hay still is stored in the mows for emergency feed, but most is fed ad lib from small bales on the ground, in the field, or from the big roll-around metal feeders.

 

Neighbors Gather for the Barnraising 

Building the barn, or “raising” as it was called then, must have been very difficult. But then, as now, farm neighbors were helpful and prospects of a barnraising brought relatives, neighbors, friends, and the curious with all sorts of helpful suggestions. Much of the measuring, sawing, nailing (with square nails), the “flat work,” had been done on the ground well in advance of the big day.

The lumber mills and yards in the Clinton-Fulton area just at the Narrows in the Mississippi River were getting into production by the mid-1850s. Big rafts of logs from the forests in Wisconsin, Minnesota and beyond, were lashed together and floated down the river where they were worked into required sizes and pieces at the lumber mills. So cheap was lumber that the beautiful, straight, long logs that outlined the rafts, and that had holes bored to thread the restraining cables through, were given away for the hauling rather than tow them back to the forests for the next load of logs downstream. The lumber needed for the big barn in 1856-57 was hauled here from the mills by wagon.

Skilled by experience, carpenters measured, cut, sawed, fitted and fastened many of the stress-bearing sections of the barn together with pegs, not metal connections. The ladder to the upper haymow is a work of art, not a nail in it, each rung tight and in place, just as it was made 129 years ago.

Perhaps one of the attractions for a barnraising was the good, homemade food brought for the big day by the women of the neighborhood, a rural custom that still prevails at any gathering in our community.

The big, wooden bins in the middle of the floor space in the barn that held the winter’s supply of oats, wheat and barley are gone. In their place are two thousand-bushel corncribs that are filled each fall through a hole in the present galvanized steel roof that long ago replaced the wooden shingle roof.

 

 

Handhewn timbers support the barn, sturdy since 1857; it still shelters livestock (and a few barn cats) on the Abbott farm.

 

Gunsmith Assists Underground Railroad

In addition to its usefulness as shelter for animals and feed, the old barn was a “station” on the Underground Railroad about the time of the Civil War.  Asa Abbott, a son of the Benjamin Abbott who first bought this acreage, was born in Vermont, in 1820. As a young man, he worked at many jobs in the East and had learned the trade of gunsmith at the U.S. Arsenal in Springfield, Mass. He shipped a supply of gunsmithing tools west as far as the Mississippi River, by way of Kentucky, where he observed slavery as recorded in Harriett Beecher Stowes’ book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” so popular just before the Civil War. At Oquawka, Ill., Asa met Royce Oatman, who encouraged him to come North to ply his trade, saying there was no gunsmith between St. Louis and St. Paul and one was sorely needed in the vicinity of the “Narrows” at Fulton, Ill., where he had a cabin.

Asa and his wife, whom he had married at Oquawka and who was a sister of Oatman’s wife, came to Fulton and set up his gun repair shop along the Fort Dearborn to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, trail. It was a small, one-room shop with one window and one door; a small cabin in which they lived was a short distance away. Business was good in the shop. Local Indians and wagon trains with would-be settlers heading West or lured to California by the 1848 gold rush were his customers.

Asa was impressed with the good soil here and the absence of hilly, rocky, thin soil he had disliked in the New England states. He wrote to his father describing the conditions here, so Benjamin came the next year and made the $5.00 per acre purchase of 80 acres from the government in 1848.

Soon after the 1848 gold rush to California began, the Oatman family joined a wagon train and left to seek their fortune in the West, but Asa chose to continue gunsmithing and farming here. The tragic fate of the Oatman family is another story (Editor’s note: next in this collection.)

Convinced of the evils of slavery he had read about and had observed first-hand in Kentucky, Asa determined to do all in his power to help any slave attempting to escape to reach Canada and freedom. Few written records were kept of a system devised to help runaway slaves that became known as the Underground Railroad. There were no rails, no trains, no cars, no timetables, no engineers or conductors. But there were enough sympathetic persons willing to risk a heavy fine and possible imprisonment to help in any way possible any slave to escape to Canada. Assisting or sheltering a runaway slave was a Federal offense, so no written records were kept, but with good luck many runaway slaves were moved slowly North to freedom, maybe only a few miles at a time, and usually under cover of darkness at night.

It is said that a slave who had run away from his master in the South, traveling on foot at night, often used streams to escape bloodhounds, which could not follow his scent in water. A white friend finding such a cold, wet, hungry, frightened person would give him food, shelter, and hide him until conditions were safe to pass him on North to the next known sympathizer. Such a negro would have made his way by wading, or by boat on the river to Fulton and would be brought here to the big barn and left, under cover of darkness. Here he would be given food and clothing, if needed, and hidden while he rested until conditions seemed right to pass him on to the next “Station.” Some night, after a few days’ rest, he might be hid in the bottom of a lumber wagon in some hay, the Abbott family would be loaded in as though going to a neighbor’s to spend the evening with friends, and he would be taken to the next sympathetic family about six miles away. It was a slow, dangerous route to freedom, and not all of them made it.

While here waiting to be passed to the North, the slave always was alert to danger and remained hidden in the loose hay. At meal times, a hearty meal was placed in a pail or basket and hung on a peg in the big barn, out of reach of cats or dogs. The children were cautioned to return at once to the house so they could honestly say they had not seen a black person, if questioned. In an hour or so, they were sent back to get the empty container. No written record was kept of the number of black persons helped, but a “slave stick,” a smooth, fifteen-inch stick of lumber, was notched for each one. The stick then was shoved down into the oats bin in the barn, just as any old stick might be, but all the family knew its importance. The stick, with its 28 notches now is in our basement, reminder of the great conflict that preserved the Union—and abolished slavery.

 

The 28 notches in this piece of oak represent each of the slaves sheltered in this barn, a station of the Underground Railroad.