Malabar Farm's nerve center is a site to behold.
Louis Bromfield was a man of many talents. A farmer, author, philosopher, political scientist and economist, he was a creative thinker of unbounded vigor, energy, curiosity and restlessness. He had the foresight to combine three adjoining worn-out Ohio farms, totaling about a thousand acres, into an enterprise he named Malabar (after the coast in India that was the setting of two of his novels).
Legend has it that the moment Bromfield’s gaze fell on Pleasant Valley near Mansfield he knew he was home to stay. There, at Malabar Farm, he pioneered and promoted a “new agriculture.” In its most basic sense, “new agriculture” involved application of the natural order of birth, growth, reproduction, death, decay and rebirth to the restoration and the maintenance of land. Bromfield played an active and knowledgeable role in the day-to-day operations of his farm as well as in the wide range of agricultural and nutritional experiments conducted there. His efforts came to the attention of agronomists and agriculturists all over the world, many of whom came to see first hand what was going on at Malabar Farm.
The “command center” at Malabar was the barn. Built in the 1890s of timbers salvaged from an old mill, the impressive structure was at the heart of agricultural undertakings that were more vast and varied than those normally carried out on a working farm. It was a busy place indeed. Bromfield said his barn was a scene of noise and activity through which passed the life of the farm. He liked everything about his barn, including the barn swallows that built dozens of nests up high in the rafters every spring and were partially responsible for the absence of mosquitoes at the farm.
Bromfield’s barn was a big one. By design, it had loose floor boards and siding, which admitted plenty of air and sunshine to the animals and crops housed there. It also had some features not found in many barns of its time; for example, the storage configuration could be adjusted with moveable racks as the volume of stored hay fluctuated throughout the year. The barn also boasted more trap doors and lofts than one normally finds. An open “breezeway” through the barn’s center allowed the wind to clear chaff and dust created by winnowing grain. In an attempt to stay in touch with the nature around him, Bromfield had a scene painted on the side of his barn because it partially obscured the view.
Bromfield often said a barn was the expression of everything good in farming and something in which an owner should take pride. Barns had character, soul, beauty and individuality, he maintained. The ideal barn in Bromfield’s view had a “great, cavernous mow filled with clover hay, two stories or three in height with cattle and horses below bedded in winter in clean straw, halfway to their fat bellies.”
Malabar’s barn represented a measure of security and stability. Bromfield retreated to it often; it was indeed his world apart. When he pushed wide the doors, he was at once enveloped by the smell of cattle, horses, hay and silage. There, forces that assailed him everywhere else were left behind.
Bromfield was fortunate not to have lived to see what happened April 4, 1993, to his beloved barn. A fire, perhaps caused by an electrical short in an egg incubator, swept through the more than century-old structure in relatively short order, destroying everything in its path, including the antique tools and much of the vintage farm machinery displayed inside. Walls of two out-buildings next to the barn were also damaged, but not beyond repair.
Curiously, although Bromfield had been dead for many years, farm safety techniques he taught more than 50 years ago helped save Malabar from what might have been total destruction. The ponds he built in strategic places for just such an eventuality provided a source of water to put out the fire.
By afternoon on the day of the fire, the barn’s blackened remains had been bulldozed into a heap. Even as cleanup was under way, many people’s thoughts turned to rebuilding.
Today, another barn stands at Malabar Farm. Its majesty is the result of an old-fashioned barn raising that occurred September 3-5, 1994, when approximately 175 volunteers from the Timber Framers Guild of North America raised the new structure’s timbers and rafters. While the new barn was built to meet modern building standards and is clad somewhat more conventionally, it reflects the traditional framing methods used in the original.
To the applause of the many onlookers, the framers closed out their work with the ritual placement of a sapling high up on a frame. This act symbolizes the workers’ respect for the trees that grant their livelihood. With a hand on the huge oak timbers, one of the craftsmen put everything into context: “If you treat your forest like a strip mine, you can’t have wood like this anymore. If you treat it like a garden, you’ll have it forever.” Louis Bromfield couldn’t have said it better.
A professor emeritus of modern languages, Robert Hatton writes books and articles from his home in Columbus, Ohio.
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