American remembrance: preserving a rural heritage

Driving through rural areas of the Northeast in early summer, one frequently sights a stand of flowering lilacs. Often they are in a clump of trees or perhaps standing alone at the edge of a field. In most cases these are the last remnants of a family homestead. House, barns, and outbuildings are gone, but the flowering bush remains. Its seasonal beauty suggests a renewal that takes place in nature but does not occur with the now vanished man-made structures of those sites.

Many country houses and barns have disappeared. This is all part of a natural process in the cultural landscape. There is always construction of new buildings and decay of old ones. It would not really be wise to alter this process too much, for it is in many cases a cleansing of that landscape. Certainly there are old buildings that are not worth saving. However, the process of destruction and preservation has become more selective in recent years, and we may be wise to ask ourselves if we are proceeding correctly.

Without doubt one of the most important events in the preservation movement has been the creation of the National Register of Historic Places. Through a process that has awakened enlightened self-interest among diverse elements of society, many structures have been placed on this register for protection and preservation.

But sites on the register tend to be in urban or village locations. Not as much attention has been given to the countryside homestead of the common man. In addition, the emphasis has been on homes and other human-centered locations, not on farm structures. Yet, there are farm buildings of noble purpose and proportion that are decaying through lack of use and care.

Old barns and outbuildings have a unique story to tell. In colder climates they were necessary for the protection of animals and equipment. In some cases houses and barns were connected. Where today's dairy barn has pneumatic equipment and bulk cooling tanks in milk houses, the old structures had to have a larger area for draft animals and often a cooling trough where cool spring-fed water ran past milk cans.

The mechanical revolution on the American farm is of relatively recent derivation. Only after World War II did tractors and complex equipment begin to diffuse widely to the country's small farmer. As equipment became more expensive and more acreage could be worked with fewer people, smaller farms were consolidated into larger operations. Often old barns were abandoned and more efficient structures erected.

These abandoned outbuildings have stood unused for 20 to 30 years. Some have already collapsed or have been torn down. Others, the better built or cared for, are still standing. However, the continued maintenance of a multithousand-square-foot structure of marginal utility is often an expense that a farm can ill afford.

Local preservation groups, active in placing structures on the historic register, will do well to look at the surrounding rural landscape. Old outbuildings with draft animal stalls, heavy timber construction, stone foundations, and high haylofts are an important part of the cultural landscape. Our society would be wise to give some thought to their preservation.

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