MAXWELL: Where I began to look inside
10/22/2006 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

The other day, I had a blast from the past.
A loyal reader, a woman who was one of mother’s playmates in Mascotte, Fla., telephoned from her Lake County home to welcome me back to the St. Petersburg Times. Our talk drifted into memories of the one-room schoolhouse in the then-all-black village of Stuckey. Blacks attended the school from first through 12th grade until passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
That building, she said, was the single-most important place to her during childhood. I surprised her when I said that my grandfather’s barn, not the little white clapboard schoolhouse, is the structure I hold most dear. I spent only one full year and three summers in Stuckey, but that was enough time for me to fall in love with “Ben Maxwell Barn,” as it was called.
It was a typical poor man’s barn. Years before I was born, my grandfather, a farmer, and his sons hammered together thick, hand-sawed pine and oak boards for the exterior and interior walls, and they used second-hand tin for the hipped roof. The tin was red, but the walls were left unpainted. The floor was dirt, and the two transport wagons, a cart and a sled were parked beneath the hips.
When I first saw the building, about age 7, it was weathered and gnarled like an old man. But I thought it was beautiful. I enjoyed it most when heavy rains tattooed the tin roof.
It was only about 50 feet from the main house’s back doorsteps. Inside, the hayloft was on east wall, the corn bins on the north wall. A wide dogtrot divided the stalls for the mules, Pete and Patsy Mack, from the main work area where the women canned and where machinery, implements and simple plunder were stored.
The smokehouse, which my cousins and I often raided for slices of ham and turkey, was attached to the south wall. The chickens and turkeys were kept in a coop away from the barn. The ducks roamed at will. A lean-to space was attached to the west wall for the unaccountably mean bluetick that kept to itself when it was not hunting with the pack.
We would dump corn into the mules’ wooden troughs and watch and listen as the tired and hungry beasts ate. If you have never heard mules grind corn between their teeth – their eyes closed in pleasure and their tails swishing – you have not heard magic. I loved the experience so much that I fed Pete and Patsy Mack each day, before they went into the fields and after they returned. I even enjoyed mucking their stalls.
The building, about 1,000 square feet, had a special odor, the commingling of grain, old hay, manure and urine, animal and human sweat, dogs and so on. I never tired of it.
For me, a typical day in the barn was a day at the zoo. In addition to the mules and pet dogs and cats as inhabitants, the barn was the permanent home to mice, owls, bats, snakes, wasps, dirt daubers, spiders, frogs and toads and my grandfather’s pet raccoon. I had a ringside seat to a show of the survival of the fittest: I saw a litter of kittens born, a snake swallow a mouse and an owl perched on a rafter tearing apart a baby rabbit.
A few bad things – of the human kind – also occurred at the barn during the early 1950s, following the famous Groveland rape trial in 1949, when four black men were accused of raping a white woman. The barn became a gathering place for scared black men. Later, and ironically, it also became a temporary rest area for white Florida Guardsmen sent by Gov. LeRoy Collins to protect my uncles and other black men from being lynched by a white mob, all inspired by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall.
More than anything else, the barn was special to me because it was my own private universe. It was where I was free from adult supervision, where I made the rules, where I tinkered with contraptions, where I played with animals, where I daydreamed and where I learned to love being alone.
“Ben Maxwell’s Barn” was torn down in 1962. I have never found another place like it – a place where I can be myself.