Barnstorming- Loss of Rural America

by Terry Hogan

When you drive down the Interstate or a local country road, do you notice something missing? Are there fewer distractions to catch your eye from the mind-numbing fields of soybean and corn? Do you remember the big old red and white barn that used to be there, but is now gone? Perhaps it sported a roof painting that encouraged you to "Visit Meramec Caverns"? Or perhaps it had a sign urging you to "Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco. Treat Yourself to the Best".

Barns are leaving us. Some go of their own weight, perhaps with the encouragement of a strong wind. Others are torn down for the value of their "barn wood" or their large internal wood beams that become architectural features in a new home. Perhaps they burn down. Some are even bulldozed down and burned. But the bottom line is that they go. Farmers generally can’t afford to maintain them, or they are part of small family farms, bought out by bigger farms and the buildings are eliminated to avoid taxes, maintenance costs, and having the buildings in the way of a soybean field.

Now there is a movement to try to save at least the very best of the best of the old barns. The movement appears to be a mix of a ground roots movement and a "top-down" effort. It finds various, and sometimes odd, places to take root. The Smithsonian Institute, located in very urban Washington, D.C. has its "Barn Again"® program to encourage the saving of barns through increasing public awareness. "Barn Again" displays tour the U.S. at historic sites, state fairs, and the like. As this article is being written, it is at the Indiana State Fair.

Barn issues also appear at the very local area, when urban sprawl, or a similar event, threatens a local barn landmark. If the community is fortunate, a local community group will rise up and try to work with the developer or the agency to find ways to save the barn. Typically, this is expensive, sometimes confrontational, and often not successful. As a result, the local media often have the opportunities to do a series of articles on "barnstorming" as the barn ends up being replaced by battling egos and power struggles.

There is an old saying that "function dictates form". Barns were built like barns to perform, well, like a barn. When the farm goes to make room for development, the barn functions go away too. Thus, not only is the barn in the wrong place, it often is in the wrong form to be useful, as well. But all this most often breaks down to money. The developer doesn’t want to increase his costs to restore/maintain the barn, and the barn is usually in the way of development plans. The barn preservationists generally are well intended, but are usually poorly funded and cannot afford the cost to disassemble, move and restore the barn at another location. Nobody sings "Barn to be Free" (sorry about that, but hey, the Smithsonian came up with "Barn Again").

Not far from my current home in Indiana, this particular struggle is occurring. The old barn, ironically, a remnant of the "City View Farm" is now being engulfed by the city of Franklin, the county seat of Johnson County. It is in the way of a proposed apartment and strip mall development. The developer wants to work with the local preservationist organization. The preservationists want to work with the developer. But money is the issue for both sides. The barn is close to the county fair grounds, which might be a safe haven for the barn, and its structure may be useful for county fair activities. But there still is no joy in Johnson County.

Meetings are being held and a nationally known barn restoration and preservation expert is being consulted. Amos Schwartz, the barn restoration expert, is more than could be hoped for. He looks to be an active, healthy 55-year old. He is about to turn 71. He is a self-described "ex-Amish" from northern Indiana who uses mostly Amish and fellow "ex-Amish" to restore barns, covered bridges, log cabins, country schools, and the like. His slide show featuring photos of "before", "during", and "after" is spectacular for the work shown, but shows he is more interested in barns than photography. His presentation is much like that of Will Rogers, with country, Amish humor, focusing on what makes us human. The wrinkle is that it is spoken with an Amish "Da" sound for "T". He is "down home", frank, and honest, and humble of the work and skill reflected in the restored buildings and bridges that now are found in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. But the costs to clean, disassemble, and move the parts of the City View barn are substantial. The later restoration/reconstruction costs are well into the 6 figures. Barn saving is not inexpensive. The audience learns that there is a price for nostalgia.

It is hoped that reasonable people can come together and reach a reasonable solution. But it is not a unique or even uncommon story. It is just a single act play that is being performed throughout America, with the outcome dependent upon the performance of the local community.

Congress has a farm bill that would spread a total of $25 million to help save barns, but the money is distributed over a 5-year period. Although $25 million isn’t pocket change, it is pretty small compared to what we spend in bombing our enemies back into the Stone Age. Even if passed, there are lots of endangered barns, and the competition will likely be keen, and subject to who has the biggest politician. Perhaps being cynical, I hope the bill carefully defines what constitutes a "barn".

Some restored barns have found new uses, ranging from the storage of cattle semen to being a guesthouse. Further, notwithstanding the farm bill, there are opportunities for tax benefits if the right hoops can be navigated. Barns can become eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places, which may open additional tax advantages.

Of course, I am not intending to condemn farmers in any way. We have a long tradition of private property and private use. We also know that the smaller, family-owned farms should be able to qualify for the federal Endangered Species Act. There is little spare cash for restoring the old family-farm barn, even if there is family history associated with it. If we want to save the best parts of our rural heritage, we must be willing to do more than to blame the farmer or the developer who bought the farm. It takes involvement, commitment, and funds. It also takes expertise from someone like Amos.

Barns are an integral part of the Midwest. Whether bailing hay and putting it up in the loft on a hot summer’s day, or trekking out to the barn on a cold winter’s morn to feed the cattle, the sheep, or the horse, barns were a focal point of the farm family’s daily lives. Barns even created their own niche for the sometimes maligned, and often overlooked "barn cat" that dutifully attended to the rodent control issue. Generations after generation of barn cats were born in the quiet corners of the hayloft. They faithfully performed the hunt.

If we can’t save the family farm, perhaps we can save enough of it to be a relic, a reminder of what we were, when things were quieter and calmer. A time when "extended families" meant something other than people with a "cash flow" problem.




Eric Arthur and Dudley Witney. 1988. "The Barn" New York, Arrowood Press

John Hanou 1992. "A Round Indiana: Round Barns in the Hoosier State." West Lafayette. Purdue Univ. Press.

Charles Klamkin. 1979. "Barns: Their History, Preservation, and Restoration". New York Bonanza Books.

Allen Noble and G. Hubert. 1995. "Barns of the Midwest". Athens, Ohio. Ohio University Press.

Aug.8, 2002