Why a Garage is Not a Barn

May 14, 2019

Credit Susan Moeller

“Mom, where’s the screwdriver?” my daughter asks.

“In the barn,” I reply.

Brief silence.

“You mean the garage?”

“Yeah, the garage. Whatever.”

Four years after moving from an 1850s house on Route 6A that actually had a barn into a 1970s house with a garage, I still refer to that place beyond my kitchen where the tools and the trash live as the “barn.” I cannot remember that after living on Cape Cod for 45 years, I have a garage.

And why should I? There’s nothing particularly unforgettable about a garage. A barn, however, has soul, heart, memory.

Our barn was a handsome two-story structure, decorated with an oxen yoke. It had a small tack room, two grain bins, two stalls, a huge loft and a manure dump underneath. It was an ecosystem unto itself with mice, hornets, spiders, roaming cats and occasional raccoons. Screech owls lived in the box attached high on the outside of the back wall and swallows nested in the beams underneath.

We never had farm animals in our barn – much to my daughter’s dismay.  But more than 150 years after it was built, you could catch the scent of hay and manure and imagine the warm breath of the horses as they stomped their feet on the worn floorboards. There were scars and flotsam from previous generations: With some refinishing, a paint-splattered workstand abandoned in the loft turned out to be a beautiful turn-of-the-century mission table. And we contributed our own marks: A friend’s airedale terrier ate a hole in the heavy sliding door and my son painted his initials on the stairway wall.

Our barn was a monument to purpose, not a mere attachment like a garage. If you wanted to hang something in the barn, be it a tool or a calendar, all you had to do was pound a nail into the wall and presto! You can’t do that in a garage.

Back in the day there were barns all up and down Route 6A. You can see them on the 1880s topographic maps of Cape Cod. Now most are gone, some replaced by garages. Others have been transformed into private homes, bed-and-breakfasts, and even apartments.

Hard to blame the owners. We spent almost as much money to keep our barn standing as we did the house and still never had a floor strong enough to support a car. The garden tractor lived in the barn; the cars in the driveway. Oh the rainy days I would have killed to have a garage as I struggled with whining children or bags of groceries. I cleared off more snow than a car dealership.

That seems pretty typical for Cape Cod, where garage culture is so confusing. All my current neighbors have garages but it seems only about half of them actually use them. A few, like me, only bother in severe weather. But, at least if snow’s in the forecast, I can put the car in the garage. That’s magic.

But it’s not a barn.