Barn Cats in Chesterfield’s History
Rarely does a week go by that my inbox doesn’t see at least one forwarded cat video—a kitten cuddling with a puppy, a cat getting dizzy on a motorized vacuum or a feline playing the piano. When did we become so “cat-obsessed?”
Cats were domesticated at least 4,000 years ago in Egypt; it is thought that cats may have become domesticated around the same time as wheat and barley. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. My relatives rarely talked about barn cats, even though they were always a present feature of every generation. In Chesterfield, cats were brought to farms for one purpose: rodent reduction—to catch the mice that invaded grain fields and barns. For anyone who thinks that this is work for a species otherwise known to be, well… a bit on the lazy side, one just has to watch a cat chase a mouse to realize that this is an infinitely entertaining endeavor for the cat. It isn’t a quick simple chase, but rather the cat can chase, catch and let a mouse go in a nearly endless cycle of torment for the unfortunate creature.
As a farm kid, barn cats also serve to teach you many life lessons. One summer we had a picnic at our farm and every kid was far more mesmerized by watching a cat give birth to her litter than by any activity my parents had planned. I’m convinced the saying about a cat having nine lives originated with a barn cat. It was a working farm; there were dangers for everyone. Unlike humans, the felines would maneuver their way out of sticky situations with nary a scratch.
Despite barn cats’ utilitarian purpose, they did sometimes bring the same enjoyment domestic kitties brought. When I was going through the archive of the Chesterfield Historical Commission, I came across what is now an iconic image of a farm woman milking a cow and turning the udder so that an excited barn cat could take a drink. If you need proof of the widespread nature of this ritual, there is even a smartphone app called “Thirsty Cat” that mimics this game!
As a little girl you want to bring every cuddly thing into the house and make it your own. I even gave some names that I remember to this day: Maddie, after the character in Madeline; Cumquat, because of his tabby orange color. One year a barn cat delivered her litter under the bay window of our house. While she was still nursing the litter there, we had a particularly bad storm and like most 7-year-old girls, I was worried that the kittens would get too cold and wet. I begged my mom to let me bring them inside. She firmly told me that the mother would take care of them—it was her job and she instinctively knew how to keep them warm. “Mother Nature just knows.”
Years later when I had a sweet, but very lazy cat of my own I used to wonder if she knew in the back of her little head how lucky she was to be able to lounge in a sunbeam all day or if she secretly longed to be a barn cat with a mouser’s job.