The man in the fading black and white photograph peers back at the camera as he holds the reins of a pair of workhorses. A broad brimmed straw hat shades his features as he proudly stands before the east wall of his new barn.      
     The man is my grandmother’s uncle Jens, and the photo was taken on the farm that would eventually become my parents’ home. Jens had immigrated from Norway and had carved a farm from the virgin prairie. The barn was his farm’s crowning jewel.     
     Jens’ barn had a gambrel roof adorned by two gothic wooden cupolas. With a lean on each side, the barn was a behemoth, measuring 60- by 60-feet. It was said people would come from miles around to behold the colossus Jens had built.     
    I never knew Jens (he died before I was born), but I reaped the benefits of his legacy. A legacy my family called the old barn.     
    The old barn was a marvelous place for kids. My siblings and I spent hour upon hour exploring its cavernous interior. I would climb the wall-stud ladder up to the soaring rafters as nervous sisters watched from below, grousing that I would fall and break my fool neck.     
    The old barn abounded with secret hiding places. We knew where mother cats liked to conceal their litters of baby kittens. We knew that broody hens liked to set up housekeeping in the crawlspace beneath the old horse manger.     
    Every conceivable species of farm animal found shelter under the old barn’s benevolent roof. Cows, of course, and pigs but also sheep and an endless parade of free-range chickens. Our farm dog once birthed a litter in one of the barn’s many hidden corners.     
    The old barn did not have a traditional hayloft. The immense center area was free of supporting structure which meant the barn could be used for an infinite number of purposes. I heard that Jens would thresh his oats in this area. I could imagine the impenetrable fog of choking dust swirling around men and machine.
     By the time I came along, a small silo had been built in the barn’s center area. Each fall, we would lower the great door on the east end of the barn to access the silo. Lowering the big door was a herculean undertaking, involving ancient ropes, creaky pulleys and a rusty steel track all of which had been in service since the late 19th century.     
    But the rewards were tremendous. Once the silo was full and the elevator was removed, we took turns swinging on the rope that dangled from the protruding steel track.
    We would clamber up onto the roof of a small nearby shed, clutch the rope and step off the edge of the world. You would plummet into infinity, the speed building, the wind roaring in your ears. Gradually, you would begin to slow as you arced up into the sky, high enough to grab a cloud. You would be suspended between heaven and earth for a moment, an eternity, sheer joy coursing through your entire being. Then you would begin the return trip.     
    Time marched on and we left our rope swinging days behind. Time also took its toll on the old barn. As the barn approached its 10th decade, its walls began to bow and its roof sag. Dad and I agreed the old barn had become unsafe and should be torn down one of these days. One of these days never came.     
    On a hot, windy May afternoon, we heard the words every farmer dreads: The barn is on fire.
    An overhead electric wire had torn loose, and the ensuing shower of sparks had ignited some straw. Between the gale-force winds and tinder-dry lumber, the old barn never stood a chance. It was engulfed by flames within a matter of minutes.     
    Yet this somehow seemed fitting. Instead of suffering the indignity of a slow death, the old barn received a rip-roaring Viking funeral. Having spent its life in the service of a family of Norwegians, this felt like a proper ending for the old barn.     
    We built another barn in its place, but it is not the old barn’s replacement. The new barn is made of rigid poles and cold steel siding. There are no cupolas, no secret places where kittens can hide, no ropes for kids to swing upon.     
    Whenever I glimpse that photo of Jens with his horses, I think of the old barn and all the memories born beneath its soaring roof. And, I give Jens a silent thanks.
    Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, S.D. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry currently works full time for the Dairy Star as a staff writer/ad salesman. Feel free to E-mail him at: jerry.n@dairystar.com.