Nick & Nikki could be names for a pair of draft horses.
In fact, they are a team that pulls their share of work at Iowa State’s historic, 93-year-old horse barns. Nick and Nikki are ISU students who work at – and live in – the barns, along with 25-30 horses, their two cats and a dog.
They are part of a tradition that goes back to 1923 for men – namely, living in the barns’ two tiny apartments in exchange for keeping the horses fed, watered and tidied.
Women were first hired only to work with the horses around 1989, but were allowed to actually live in the barns about six years later, according to associate professor Peggy Miller-Auwerda, who was in charge of the ISU equine program at the time.
Today female students are firmly entrenched in both the work and housing rotations.
Best estimates suggest that some 125-150 students have earned part of their college expenses by living in the barns and doing the chores.
One of these students was Floyd Andre, who arrived in Ames from Pasadena, California in 1927 without means to otherwise support himself. Much later he was named Dean of Agriculture, a position he held from 1949-1972.
Another barn occupant during Andre’s time was Justus A. Benson, Jr. His son, Chuck (of Ames), says Justus was one of seven children living on a farm near Sheldon, Iowa. His family was just scraping by, so the only way Justus could afford college was by working (and living) in the barns. Floyd Andre and Justus Benson remained fast friends forever.
Today their successors in the barns are:
Nikki (Nicole Sterling), 21, a senior in Animal Science from Mokena, Illinois (pop. 18,740), who has been living in the horse barns for 1.5 years.
Nick (Nicholas Hurd-Johnson), 21, also a senior in Animal Science, from San Jose, CA (pop. 945,942), who has lived in the barns for 3.5 years.
Both Nikki and Nick plan to graduate this December .
Nikki wants to become an equine veterinarian while Nick is aiming to leave horses for a career in the meat industry.
Even though they need to be up in time to feed the horses at 6 a.m. -– sometimes pull weekend duty – and have to work in all kinds of weather, they both love their jobs.
Nick and Nikki work 20 hours a week. The first 10 hours cover the cost of apartment rental and utilities. For the second 10 hours, they are paid $9.50 an hour.
The apartments are far from swish: One main room (and window) with a sofa and loft bed overhead; a teeny kitchen and bathroom with shower. Well heated, Nikki says, but it can get too warm. The A/C is furnished by an open window or fan.
Apart from each other, Nick and Nikki have no humans living nearby – although 13 other students are currently working part-time at the campus barns.
This isolation – especially after dark -- was a major concern for administrators who feared for a long time that women might be at risk in a barn apartment.
For her part, Nikki says she has absolutely no worries. “Besides,” she adds, “Nick’s only a stone’s throw away.”
In fact, both Nikki and Nick say they enjoy their situation – especially their location which is “just across the road” from Lush Hall, where many of their classes are taught.
Particularly Nikki, who does not have a car.
One small problem, Nick says, has to do with not having an easily identified address. That makes something like ordering a pizza delivery a bit of a trick.
Another time, when he was stopped by Ames police (“don’t ask why”) they wanted to know his address. When he replied, “the horse barns,” Nick recalls, “they thought I was being a smart-ass.”
The next day he phoned the Campus police and requested a specific address. He now lives at 1050 North University Boulevard.
Nikki, on the other hand, still uses ISU Horse Barns as her address – but then adds the “middle one.”
Against this idyllic spring background of foals gamboling around the pens, Hurd-Johnson and Sterling still have to get up early, lug 50-60 pound bales of straw and muck out the stalls.
They also have to be careful. Both have almost been kicked in the teeth. Nikki was once head-butted hard enough to produce a large goose egg. She also broke a toe when a mare suddenly stepped backwards.
“You just need to keep remembering,” she said, “that all animals are unpredictable.” That even applies to Canaveral, a 25-year old stallion who you can hug and play with, Nick added.
Their two main concerns aren’t the horses: It’s the mice and flies – lots of them – that can give fits. It’s what you expect around barn animals, so Nikki and Nick have to adapt. Which is why both have cats that are mousers ( Nick's "Bailey" and Nikki's "Paisley").
There’s also the occasional bat (but no rats), as well as raccoons and spiders to keep things interesting. Nick also has the company of Abby, his 7-year-old golden Labrador.
Bottom line.: Nick Hurd-Johnson and Nikki Sterling love their on-campus barn location, their work and their environment.
As Nikki put it, “I can see horses outside my kitchen and bedroom windows. And when I open my front door, there’s a horse in a stall.”
“Nothing,” she adds, “beats waking up every morning to horses outside your window.”
“My cat loves it, too.”
(Story and photos Submitted by James T. Emmerson, Mar 30, 2016)