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Old barns get new attention

As barns fade from the rural American landscape, efforts are being made to preserve them.

By Sarah More McCannCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 2, 2008

Rural icons: Barns in Iowa still stand, but many are disappearing.

Andy Nelson/CSM/File

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The fieldstone barn started to crack in the 1990s, and when residents of Chase, Wis., (pop. 2,082) had the opportunity to collectively purchase and restore the 1903 building – one of only a handful of stone barns left in the state – they jumped at the opportunity.

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The town obtained a loan from the local bank to buy the barn and lot for $150,000 in 2007, and since then has been searching for additional public and private money to help pay for some $465,000 worth of necessary repairs, says Kristin Kolkowski, who's active in the effort.

Far from unusual, the project represents a growing national trend to identify and preserve these rural icons.

Old barns are rapidly disappearing from the nation's landscape: As few as 2 million may be left, down from 6 million in the 1930s. And with every downed barn, bits of the nation's story are lost.

"Up until the 20th century, this was a nation of farmers," says Jim Lindberg, who heads Barn Again!, a project of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Farms are at the core of our nation's identity, and the barn is the center of that identity."

Within the past 50 years, the amalgamation of land, the mechanization of farming, and an exodus of rural residents to cities left many barns unused, says Charles Leik, president of the National Barn Alliance, a preservationist group.

"In my area [Michigan], everyone used to keep dairy cows. Now there aren't any. Everyone is 'green' farming: corn, soybeans. Barns became largely superfluous," he says.

After decades of neglect, the roofs, walls, and floors of old barns start to go.

Although Mr. Lindberg says updating barns can cost half of the $40,000 to $50,000 it could take to build a new barn, other factors discourage owners from repairs. Not realizing that the barns can be adapted for small-scale farming is one. Another is not knowing that grants may be available to help.

Recently, a market for antique lumber has become a factor in barn destruction. When a developer recently leveled 200 buildings throughout the Midwest, much of the wood was sold for flooring, says Charles Law, a University of Wisconsin Extension expert in rural land preservation.

"When you have a 200-year-old board like chestnut, it's great for the homeowner, but you've lost the barn," Mr. Leik of the Barn Alliance says.

The connections Americans have to barns are often emotional, but the case that preservationists make for saving the old structures is based on their unique blend of architectural elements and rural history – demonstrating the influence of immigrants to the United States as well as American agricultural developments.

"In Wisconsin, the barn that is the most prevalent is the dairy barn," says Dr. Law. "But the breadth and array of barn architecture and characteristics you find ... are tied so deeply to different groups."