Texts: Essay by Dan Kirkbride

The burning of the Hersh barn.
Chugwater, Wyoming

 

The burning of the Hersh barn.  

They’re Tearing Down Elmer Hersh’s Barn 

2012 

The class pictures in the Chugwater School Commons portray youthful images of graduates eventually forgotten. I doubt anyone here still remembers Elmer Hersh, Class of 1932, except for me. But while he left Chugwater 80 years ago, he represents an important piece in the jigsaw puzzle of my life. 

Elmer Hersh’s family homesteaded on the blustery hill a half-mile south of my house. The house foundations and the well are still there along with corrals I have resurrected. And the old barn still stands, too, but tomorrow they’re tearing it down. 

When I hide there out of the wind each winter, watching my calves learn to eat cake, it surges back and forth like a giant rocking chair. My great uncle had the McMillins, carpenters from Chugwater, brace it in the 60’s and that bought it nearly another half century, but now the nails have rusted and it leans at seven percent. I wanted to choose the day it came down so that I could watch it, rather than be under it, when the big crash came. 

The rats in the haymow are, of course, disturbed by these prospects. No longer will the occasional owl park in the north window. The steers cowered in her shadow on many a winter day, protected from all but the random snowflakes that washed over the roof and fell gently on their backs. And when she falls, we’ll lose one of our best family stories. 

When my wife, Lynn, and her late husband, Chuck Westerman, moved to Cheyenne from Chicago in 1986 to pastor a church, they came as pioneers to the Equality State, unaware of any connection to anyone in Wyoming. Six years later, Lynn and I met and were engaged. Lynn subsequently reported the news to her mother-in-law, Rosie Westerman. 

Then at some point, Rosie, a Pennsylvania native called her cousin, Tootie, back home. 

“Lynn’s getting remarried,” she’s reported to have said. “She’s marrying a rancher from a little town north of Cheyenne called Chugwater.” Rosie told us that at that point, Tootie almost fell off her chair. You see Tootie, too, had married a man from Wyoming. But not just Wyoming; southeast Wyoming. And not just southeast Wyoming; Chugwater. Tootie had married Elmer Hersh, relocated back on the East Coast for military service. Elmer and Tootie remained married more than 50 years. So my boys had a heritage in Chugwater from the day they walked on the place. They had an old barn. 

I tried all summer to trade the barn wood to someone who would dismantle it and then sell the wood which basically retails for five times its normal value. The few offers were unrealistic relative to your basic demolition, so that’s what is scheduled. A portion of the barn did ship to Glendo, however, paneling for a room in the Taylor’s basement. Ralph Weatherstone came from Gillette and will transform his pickup load into picture frames. The grayed west side wood feels smooth from years of sand blasting. Sun baked the south side to a golden brown. Furry bovines cracked an extra measure on the east, bunching together to stay warm in the lee. 

I mention all this now, because there’s a Christmas angle to the Hersh Barn as well. You make your own fun and memories in the country, right? One dark night in late December, around 1994, the phone rang. A mysterious person, whose voice sounded a lot like Karen Guidice’s, asked to speak to one of the kids who at that time ranged from ages four to 12.  

“Go to the old barn,” the mystery person said. “They’re in the old barn.” Then she hung up. 

Well, we only knew of one really old barn in the neighborhood, so we bundled up and off we went scarves wrapped tight against the chill. The stable door creaked open. The flashlight blazed. Hanging from the rafters—a gleaming tin foil covered star wavered in the draftiness. Gathered below around a feedbox, the whole cast of characters. I recall something like two, bigger stuffed bears and a baby bear. There was a toy sheep. Nearby an elephant stood at attention. I don’t remember if we’d taped the word, Camel, to his side but that would have been a good idea, just as we could have used an alligator, a dinosaur and a lion to bear gifts. 

The tin foil fell off long ago, but the cardboard star has twirled on its baler twine support 24/7 for the past 18 years, reminder of a little gold nugget buried in the hearts of a young family just starting out. 

Good job, old barn! Your shelter meant as much as another round of shots to a sick calf. You harbored branding irons, salt blocks and mineral feeders; mostly stopped the hurricanes in their tracks and did your work. Somewhere in Campbell County, you frame a photo of someone’s grandparents or a prized elk. Once, you hosted a holy moment. 

And here’s to you, Elmer Hersh, and all the other old grads who have no one around here left who knew them. We salute you all. This was your place once to tend and keep for awhile, just as now, for a time, it is ours. 

The barn will be gone after tomorrow, but now we have a story to remember you by.