Thursday, May 17, 2012

Xury E. West's remarkable barn

Many Greenville-area pioneers are buried in the old Greenville Cemetery, all that remains of the village that was at the heart of a pioneer Washington Township neighborhood. This photo was taken by Doris Christensen, another Dry Flat alumni, who has taken I'd guess a couple of thousand tombstone and cemetery photographs for the "Find A Grave" Web site.

We were talking over lunch Sunday --- again --- about the decline and fall of Iowa's remarkable barns, a feature of the landscape and the economy made obsolete, or so it seems, by shifts in farm size, numbers and agricultural practices. The cook's old barn, which lost its roof in a wind storm last year, will come the rest of the way down once someone can be found to do the deed --- which brought the topic up in the first place.

Sometime in the early years of the 20th century, Henry Gittinger (1861-1953) --- then editor of The Chariton Leader --- wrote about one of Lucas County's more remarkable barns, constructed by his grandparents, Xury E. and Mary "Polly" (Hays) West, in Washington Township, southeast of Russell (see this earlier post for more about Greenville) shortly before the Civil War. This barn, too, has long since fallen. But here's his account --- from an undated Leader clipping:


Perhaps boy life in Lucas county a generation or more ago had as many charms as it is possible in any age. In fact the retrospect is filled with pleasant memories and the more serious things then are viewed as really amusing. The writer calls to mind one occasion which made his eternal future look dark and not a ray of hope seemed to penetrate through the lowering clouds of despair.

It was just before the (Civil) war that Grandfather (Xury E.) West erected the big barn at Old Greenville, on the Mormon Trace. It was an immense structure then and would be no small thing now. The framework was of hewed oak and everything was of the best native material. It looked to us afterwords about the size of the Chariton depot (the old two-story C.B.&Q. depot and hotel).

The building of the temple at Jerusalem likely was watched with no greater interest than was the erection of this barn for there was nothing like it along the course of the Trace from Nauvoo to Council Bluffs. It was provided with a great threshing floor, ware rooms, granaries and bins, and the stables were separated from the other parts of the building so that it was perfectly clean in these departments. Above were the great benches for mowing hay and everything presented an architectural order superior to any building then known in the land.

Religious meetings and public assemblies of all kinds were held in the little old school house or at a private residence --- that is of an ordinary nature --- but on greater occasions Grandfather's big barn became a sort of exposition building, the threshing floor seated, which formed the auidtorium, and the hay mows served as galleries and all would accommodate a thousand or more people very comfortably.

Intellectual giants used to meet here in the early days to thresh out the political issues of the times and Greecian orators were never listened to or cheered with more appreciation than on these occasions. Dr. Lind, political sage and savant, often appeared here and thrilled his hearers with his reasonings and the Hon. Robert Coles sometimes aroused the democrats to high enthusiasm with his polished words and even flow of language. Could the old rafters and timbers speak, they would tell of great times there, for it was the temple of eloquence --- and the seat of early learning.

It was in the good old days when the "quarterly meetin's" meant something and the presidin' elder came and preached the "big" sermons. Everybody looked forward to these occasions with high keyed expectation, whether they held to the Methodist faith or not, but in those medieval days no issue was taken on those grounds and it may be that the newly mown clover formed the decorations of the house of worship, hanging in green festoons here and there about the altar or pleasingly relieved by the more mature hues of the dry fodder.

In either event it formed a picture that is painted ont the memory in never fading colors and the background has never been excelled by the silken drapery of city churches.

"Rock of Ages" was sung in the pious way of old by everyone who had a voice to sing --- and those who didn't measured the metre on their fingers. They were not then afraid of their neighbors getting ahead of each other and this etended to the song services as well as in businessfor some sang high, some low, some deliberate and others, like a steam engine divested of a governor, but it was melody that will ring in the ears that heard it so long as time shall last.

It was on one of those occasions that the incident happened previously alluded to. In his innocent nature, the writer concluded to scale the ladder to the gallery (just like the boy of today) and mingle with the crowd on high. The presiding elder had lined his long metre and was delineating the "big" sermon, but whether it was his flight of eloquence or a misstep of the boy caused the accident the world will never know --- perhaps the former.

An avalanche was started from the gallery and soon there was a lull in the sermon. However, they got the pitchforks and dug the preacher out from under the hay while a good old uncle of the ambitious youth immediately renounced his Methodism for the time being, accepted the doctrine of total depravity, took him out into the back lot and there taught him the beautiful lesson of repentance with a locust sprout. The lesson has never been forgotten.


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