THE SHAPE OF THINGS: THE RANCH

CATEGORY: GRASS VALLEY

RANCH PLAN

I love farms and ranches.  I like to figure out how they are laid out and why, assuming there is a reason why people place things in a certain way.  Once when my husband, Bob and I were driving from Portland to Minneapolis, I eagerly observed the farms as we drove east across Minnesota.  They all seemed to be laid out remarkably alike, at least on the left (north) side of the highway: the house was in the front nearest the road, the barn was to the right of the house and set further back, the outbuildings were scattered out behind the barn and to its left.  Behind it all was a large grove of trees.  When I looked to the right, I couldn’t see the farm buildings except for a few elusive roof tops.  They were set far from the road with trees in between.  Then it occurred to me that every farm had a woodlot; the woodlot was on the north of the farm buildings, probably to protect them from the cold north winter winds.  The barns were to the east of the houses.  Maybe the summer winds were westerly, and it was better to have the winds blowing from the house to the barn instead of the other way around so that odors and flies would waft away into the fields or down to the neighbors.  I never checked this out, but the lay-outs were so alike, it surely could have been for no other reason.

I grew up on a wheat ranch in Grass Valley, in the middle of Sherman County, in the middle of that part of the state of Oregon that borders the Colombia River.  When I was young, the part of Oregon that was east of the Cascade Mountains, which was three quarters of the state, was called “Eastern Oregon.”  It had a dryer climate and fewer people so it was all lumped together under one remote-sounding name, as if it were the Far East.  Anybody who was anybody lived in the western part of the state where water for crops was free and came down almost continuously, from that big sprinkler system in the sky.  The rain clouds wafting eastward from the Pacific Ocean, were stopped somewhat by the lowest mountains in the state, called the Coast Range–and then more than somewhat by the Cascade Mountains leaving everything east of the Cascades panting for water.  Today there are more people east of those mountains than there used to be, and Sherman County is called North Central.

In Sherman County, the cold winter winds came from the east.  They swept down the eastern shaft of the Colombia River from the Bitterroot Mountains, spread out over the eastern Oregon plains and brought snow and ice and frozen toes.  Some of the east wind swerved around and came into our north/south valley from the north, which perhaps accounted for all the utility buildings at the ranch being to the north of the house where they served as a wind-break.  Perhaps.  A certainty is that the main entry to the house faced south, the most pleasant direction all year, even in summer because it was shaded by trees.

Other than those two nods to climate, if indeed either of them were intentional, the ranch did not respond to geography.  Its main design feature was geometry.  It was a square within a square within a square.

Square #1 was the main block of the house.  It was a two story cube with a hip roof, its squareness undiminished by a couple of projecting wings.

Around the house was a square yard defined by a five foot high fence.  That was Square #2.  The yard was large enough for a vegetable garden in one corner and a small orchard in another.  A large lawn with many shade trees filled the rest of it.

Square #3 was called the “Big Square.”  It was about one hundred feet out from the house fence, and went all the way around the house yard.  It was an all purpose circulation space.  On the east, south, and west were barb wire fences, except for a garage at the southeast corner.  All across the north side were farm related structures: the cow barn, the cow corral, pig pen, pig house, machine shop, windmill, water tower, chicken yard, chicken house and the long machine shed, which was big enough to house two wagons, the tractor and even a small combine when later there was one.

Between the chicken house and the machine shed was the “four-holer” for those who liked to relieve themselves in a social situation.  It was a handy appurtenance for harvest hands, none of whom were allowed in the house (they were even fed outside at a long table set up on the lawn).  It was also handy for anyone else who didn’t want to go all the way into the house to use the bathroom.  The four-holer had its own appurtenance: the “Monkey Wards” catalog, which served two purposes: reading material and—well, it was the depression: nobody bought toilet paper for outdoor toilets.

At three locations in the Big Square were big wooden gates.  The main one was where the entry lane came into the south side of the Big Square from highway 97.  It was always kept open, except when the horses were turned into the Square to keep the weeds down.

Directly opposite the entry lane, at the east side of the Square, was the gate to the pasture and the wheat fields beyond.  It was actually two gates of different sizes with a removable post between, so that both gates could be opened to allow for the passage of a large combine.

The third gate was between the cow corral and the pig pen.  It led to the sheep barn.

Beside this trend toward geometry, the layout functioned better in a utilitarian way than any ranch I have ever seen.  Having a circulation space clear around the house and yard made everything accessible in every direction, and the entry to the ranch house on the south was uncluttered with farm detritus.  It gave the house a certain dignity.

Another utilitarian feature was that the horse barn and the straw shed were both set into the sides of the hill on the other side of the valley so the mows could be filled from the up-hill side.  It saved a lot of heavy lifting.

I should also mention that the whole ranch was beautifully maintained.  Both of my grandparents probably came into being fully equipped out of the pages of the farmer’s almanac, approved by the county agent, willing and able to keep everything on the farm and in the house in pristine condition.