The Big Red Barn
Over the last eight decades a Northside landmark known as the "Big Red Barn" has vigilantly watched as progress has occurred in the Magic Valley of South Central Idaho. And while farming has become an almost forgotten way of life to many of us, the Big Red Barn now serves as a monument to those farmers and their families who carved out an agricultural miracle from the Southern Idaho sagebrush. The barn is a familiar sight for those travelling past the Double H Ranch on the Bob Barton Road southwest of Jerome, Idaho. Yet few probably realize that the Bob Barton was nothing more than a rabbit trail for decades after the barn was built.
In this photograph taken in late summer of 1999, the Big Red Barn stands proudly enshrouded by trees as a monument to those who settled the Magic Valley in South Central Idaho during the early 1900’s.
Owned by Gene and Sylvia Hite, this proud building represents more than just a shed where cows were milked in days gone by. While this wood structure is not as large, nor as efficient as the new cinder block barns of today’s 1,000-cow dairies, the Big Red Barn and others like it remind us of not only where we have been, but perhaps where we are going.
With the barn wood on both exterior walls aged by over 70 years of wind, rain, and sunshine, the building had to be structurally reinforced in 1990-1991 by a master craftsman using modern Masonite siding in order to preserve the barn. While the Big Red Barn serves to remind us of our common heritage in the Magic Valley, it may be the progress we have experienced over the years that has allowed the structure to be preserved.
The Early Years
The original center portion of the barn was built by two brothers, Charlie and John Ross in 1919. At that time the downstairs of the barn consisted of a center hallway, two granaries, a five stanchion milking area, a storage area, and a horse stall and feed bunk on each side of the barn. Full-sized sliding doors were located at each end of the barn that allowed for a team of horses to pull a wagon into one side of the barn in the evening and pull it out the other side of the barn the next morning. The horse stalls provided an area for harnessing the horses in the morning and brushing them down in the evening. During winter storms, the downstairs often served as a shelter to both horses and cattle as well.
The upstairs of the Big Red Barn consisted of a huge loft that provided ample room for storing loose hay. At harvest time the hay was lifted into the upper story through a large removable panel on the front of the barn using pulleys. Throughout the year the hay was then dropped through the floor into the feed bunks on either side of the barn as it was needed by the horses or cattle. Two small windows at each end of the barn on the upper floor provided interior lighting in the loft. The roof of the barn was topped with a crow’s nest or cupola to enhance the appearance of the large structure.
The cavernous loft to the Big Red Barn looks very much today as it did when it was constructed by Charlie and John Ross in 1919. While plywood has now been used to reinforce the inside of the original loft doors, much of the remainder of the interior of the loft has remained essentially unchanged over the past eight decades.
The Hite Family
In 1920, the mortgage to the farm was purchased by George Gillespie, a local investor, who then sublet the 80-acre tract. In 1923, Percy and Jennie Hite rented the property from Mr. Gillespie and began to raise their young family on the farm. Over the next 22 years, the Hites along with their children, Gerald, Gene, Bernadine, Donna, and Bob, put the Big Red Barn to good use.
Farming times were hard times during the 1920’s. The loss of a single milk cow could mean severe hardship for the entire family. The Big Red Barn proved to be a valuable shelter during the hard winters both for the family cows, which usually all had names, and the young calves that were born each year.
The Hite family also had a special team of workhorses, named Ruby and Peggy. These gentle-mannered beasts of burden did their share of the work whether pulling a plow or the family wagon. As with other working teams, the two horses responded accurately to voice commands given to them by their masters. During the colder months, the horse stalls in the Big Red Barn provided welcome comfort to these animals.
While Gene Hite was growing up on what is now the Double H Ranch, his high school sweetheart, Sylvia Silver, was also growing up on her own family farm located on the Golf Course Road six miles south of Jerome. Sylvia’s parents, George Sr. and Dora Chess Silver also farmed for many years along with the help of their children.
By the early 1940’s, Percy’s two eldest sons were ready to take up farming for themselves. After graduating from Jerome High School in 1940, Gerald Hite married Dolly Snyder. In 1941, Gerald and Dolly Hite purchased the adjacent 80-acre farm just west of the present day Double H Ranch on the Bob Barton Road that the couple held until 1998.
After graduating with the Class of 1941 from Jerome High School, Gene Hite and Sylvia Silver were married on July 7, 1941 at the home of the bride’s parents, south of Jerome. Over the next few years Gene helped both his father and older brother farm. In 1944, Percy and Jennie Hite purchased a 20-acre farm two miles west of Jerome. When the elder Hites moved to their new farm in 1945 (along with their youngest children, Donna and Bob), Gene and Sylvia Hite rented the Gillespie farm.
During the 1950’s the original sliding door on the west side of the barn was taken off of the track and cut into two in order to provide a smaller and more convenient entrance for the milk cows.
In 1958 Gene added a milk room to the barn where the remaining horse stall had been and etched the year “1958” into the concrete pad in front of the barn to commemorate the event. The new concrete pad made it easier for the milk truck to pull alongside the barn for manual loading of the 10-gallon milk cans.
At that time the barn had nearly all of the conveniences of a modern-day barn, with electricity, automatic milkers, a milk cooler, a Ward’s Airline AM-Short-Wave Radio, hot running water, and a heated milk room. It was no secret that the cows seemed more relaxed with music playing in the background and produced more milk during the winter months after first being washed off with warm water.
In 1951, Gene and Gerald Hite and some neighbors reshingled the south side of the original Big Red Barn and also removed the original crows’ nest. Here, from left to right, Sylvia Silver Hite’s parents, George Sr. and Dora Silver, and her nephew, Flash Silver, look on along with Nancy Hite and Gene Hite Jr.
From the 1920’s through the 1960’s, Percy Hite, sons Gerald and Gene, and grandchildren Gene Jr., Nancy, and Don successively helped with milking the cows in the barn. As with the dairies of today, milking the cows was a never-ending job that had to be completed at 12-hour intervals, 365 days a year, come rain or shine.
But there was a lighter side to milking the cows. Milking time was also dinnertime for the farm animals. The cows looked forward to enjoying rolled grain and fresh hay. The young calves, some of which later served as 4-H stock, were also eager to have their ration of milk.
The barn also served as a haven for smaller farm animals as well. The barnyard cats soon learned to associate dinnertime with the sound of the vacuum compressor on the milker. After a hard day of mousing or just sleeping in the loft, warm milk was a special treat for them as well. The funnel of an old grain grinder cushioned with gunnysacks in a corner of the barn served as a nest for many litters of kittens over the years. At one time there were two litters of kittens simultaneously nursing in the old grain grinder representing three generations of mousers.
Here the Big Red Barn towers over the other buildings on the Hite Family Farm during the winter of 1952. The hog shed can be seen between the barn and the shop and the haystacks and derrick can be seen on the right of the barn.
The farm animals are now gone and the main floor of the barn quietly consists of a large storage area located on the south and center part of the barn along with the original two granaries, the tack room, and the milk room located on the north side of the barn. While the automatic milkers have long been disassembled and the grain grinder has been moved, several of the ledgers containing the dates that the cows freshened are still penciled on the inside walls of the barn.
Today the 10-gallon milk cans are considered antiques and are highly sought after by collectors. The classic 1930’s Wards Airline AM-Short-Wave Radio has now been fully restored to its original working condition.
A Social Hall
Over the years the Big Red Barn has served for many other purposes than just a dairy barn. For a few years during the early 1920’s, the loft served as a community dance hall. During that time, the barn also served as a gateway to a hidden still that was placed in an A-frame hog pen in a remote pasture south of the barn. The smell from the hogs was used to help cover the smell of the moonshine during a portion of the Prohibition Era.
The Big Red Barn stands out prominently in this aerial photograph of the Hite Family Farm taken in the summer of 1962. Centered between the farm house on the left and the tenant house on the right, the barn stands next to the adjoining corrals, stock shed, and haystacks. The outline of the derrick that was once used to stack loose hay in the fields can also be seen located between the two haystacks.
The loft of the Big Red Barn has served as a social center on numerous occasions throughout the years. During the mid-1920’s, Percy and Jennie Hite held barn dances in the loft. At that time guests entered through an outside door on the south side of the barn and climbed a stairway into the upper floor. An upright piano along with country fiddles provided dancing music for all to enjoy. Percy declined to continue the affairs when the fire hazard from his smoking guests became apparent.
In more recent decades the loft has served as a clubhouse, an indoor badminton court, a roller-skating rink, a spook house for Halloween Parties, a carnival building, an archery range, and an indoor basketball court. After being used for over 30 years as benches, backrests for archery targets, and building blocks for straw forts, the last few aging straw bales were finally swept out of the barn loft in 1983 to remove the fire hazard.
The loft is now empty except for an antique trunk, a few wooden crates of old farm machinery parts, and a few pieces of wooden furniture. Yet the activities of the past leave one who visits this large hall with a haunting sense of presence.
For those who look carefully, the long-forgotten autographs of those who danced or played here can still be found inscribed on the walls and ceiling of the loft, decades after they were written.
Gene Hite contemplates the memories of a bygone era in the loft of the Big Red Barn during October of 1999. Here, he has his right hand on an antique trunk from the early 1900’s that was owned by his father, Percy Hite.
Renovation of the Big Red Barn was started in 1983 when the inside of the main milking area was gutted of the broken stanchions and rotting wooden flooring. A new cement floor was added at that time to shore up the foundation and to allow the main portion of the barn to be used as a storage shed. Many of the inside doors were refurbished at that time. During the repair work, all scrap pieces of the original barn wood were carefully saved for use as future patching material on the barn.
Renovation continued in 1986 with the addition of two new sets of double doors on the front side of the barn that would allow for wider equipment to be stored in the main portion of the structure.
Inspection of the two outside walls of the Big Red Barn in 1990 proved that the original barn wood was too far beyond repair to withstand an upgrade without being covered with new siding material. The outside walls were then strengthened and recovered with tough Masonite siding during a six-month period in 1990 and 1991. New double doors were placed on the west side of the barn so that a vehicle can now be driven in one side of the barn and out the other. Glass windowpanes were used to replace the wooden shutters on the four windows in the barn loft to allow sunlight into the upper story during the day. The foundation was also shored up and several supporting posts reset in concrete.
The most recent aerial photograph of the Double H Ranch taken on May 14, 1994 clearly shows the Big Red Barn as the majestic centerpiece of the Hite Family Farm.
In early 1991, Gene designed and built a new cupola that is an exact scale model replica of the center portion of the original Big Red Barn. The cupola and accompanying weather vane were installed on the roof of the barn on March 9th of that year. This project re-established the original silhouette of the center portion of the barn that had been altered when Gene removed the original weather-checked cupola in 1951.
In order to restore as much of the original look of the Big Red Barn as possible, great efforts were also taken in April of 1991 by Don Hite and his son Justin Baldwin-Bonney to hand paint the north and south sides of the original barn which are now located inside the two sheds.
During the summer of 1991, a small pasture was added on the south side of the Big Red Barn along with a row of thirteen poplar trees, a new fence, and an underground sprinkler system. This project left the barn surrounded by green lawn and large trees on all sides.
Grandson Justin Baldwin-Bonney helps Gene Hite put the finishing touches on the new cupola on the roof of the Big Red Barn during April of 1991.
Most recently, during the winter of 2001, Gene built a new wide stairway in the same stairwell to the loft as originally existed in the Big Red Barn. The new steep stairway was carefully engineered for access from the inside of the barn (instead of from the outside as the previous stairway) and is hinged from the ceiling of the first floor of the barn so that it can be readily winched out of the way of machinery stored on the lower floor.
The Big Red Barn is fortunate to have not only survived over the past four generations, but to have finally been restored to its near-original condition. Many of Idaho’s other old barns, some more grand in size or style, have simply fallen down during the past 20 years.
With both its interior and exterior largely refurbished, the Big Red Barn now sits between finely graveled driveways and adjoining strips of trees and manicured lawns trimmed by white board fences. The sign above the gate on the Hite Family Farm proudly displays the name of the Double H Ranch to all those who venture by on the Bob Barton Road southwest of Jerome.
A Look To The Past And A Look To The Future
During his own senior year in high school in 1973, Don Hite found the carving that his father Gene made in the woodwork on a door jam inside a closet in the back of the auditorium in what was then Jerome High School at least some 32 years earlier which read "Sylvia Silver + Gene Hite."
Over fifty years later on August 3, 1991, Gene and Sylvia Hite celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary in a garden ceremony hosted at their home by their children and grandchildren. The Big Red Barn stood proudly in the middle of what was a parking lot on that hot summer day.
During this celebration it was noted that several of the guests seemed compelled to inspect the building that they hadn’t been in since they were children. Following the ceremony, family members and close friends each received a red T-shirt with a picture of the Big Red Barn and the name of the Double H Ranch on it to commemorate the reunion of family and friends.
On July 7, 2001, Gene and Sylvia Hite celebrated their 60th Wedding Anniversary in Jerome in an event again attended by both family and friends. While the actual reception for this anniversary was not held on the Hite Family Farm, many of the visiting family members were again drawn to closely inspect Gene’s latest renovations to the Big Red Barn.
Some ten years earlier in April of 1991, three generations of Hites – Gene, son Don, and grandson Justin, stood on the roof of the Big Red Barn while Gene put the finishing touches on the new cupola. The view from the top of the Big Red Barn provided a panoramic spectacle of the agricultural miracle of the Magic Valley farmland framed by the Sawtooth Mountains to the north, the South Hills to the south, and the distant horizon to the east and west.
While one can only wonder if Charlie and John Ross in 1919 envisioned the magic that would someday transform the desert valley as they put the finishing touches on the original cupola, one can very clearly see the fruits of a lifetime of labor by Gene and Sylvia Hite on not only the Big Red Barn, but the Hite Family Farm as well.