GREAT barns are an important part of the rural landscape. They are familiar landmarks that speak of seedtime and harvest, of hay and horses, milk and memories. Many barns in the United States represent the unique building traditions of settlers from many other parts of the world. Numerous ethnic groups came to be identified by their distinctive old-country barn types.
In the Midwest, for instance, the English three-bay barns and German cantilevered barns were until recently viewed as curiosities or relics of a vanishing era.
Now, through the ``Barn Again!'' program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, barns are getting long overdue attention. Farmers are finding out how outdated barns can be economically rehabbed and put back to good use.
`HISTORIC'' generally refers to barns more than 50 years old. Many have architectural significance. Some are important local landmarks or are valued for their contribution to agricultural history or technology. The National Register of Historic Places lists 2,599 entries defined as ``resources that were historically functional as agricultural buildings.''
Others are appreciated for the visual impact they make and for their contribution to regional tourism.
``Can you imagine driving through lush farming areas and seeing only low modern metal barns, and almost no complete homesteads with their original and distinctive barns?'' asks Janis King, a ``Barn Again'' convert from Knoxville, Ill.
``Huge numbers of barns, granaries, and other structures - many of them historically significant - were being torn down, victims of obsolescence, neglect, and a trend to new metal barns,'' says Mary Humstone, ``Barn Again!'' project director and program associate of the National Trust's mountains/plains regional office in Denver.
``We saw many good barns going to waste on farms and ranches all across the country,'' Ms. Humstone reported to the recent annual conference of the National Trust, held in Cincinnati.
``We figured that as preservationists we had the kind of expertise that could help save these buildings and put them back into use, thus saving farmers money and benefiting rural communities as well as the public as a whole.''
Some daunting facts were faced. Farming had changed drastically in the last 50 years. A typical farm of 1920 had many buildings: a hog barn, a chicken coop, small granaries, machine sheds, large barns for livestock and hay. Today, many farms specialize in one crop or one product, and modern farmers want efficient, modern buildings. Although barns seem to survive as long as the land is in some form of agricultural production, there are far fewer farms today than a half century ago.
``Sweeping technological changes, farm abandonment, climatic conditions, and urban encroachment threaten rural resources as never before,'' Humstone points out, ``so we must somehow make preservation easy, understandable, practical, and cost-effective.''
The ``Barn Again!'' program, she explains, was developed in response to a need for ideas and technical information for preserving older farm buildings, and for blending economic development and historic preservation.
EDITORS at Successful Farming magazine in Des Moines agreed with the trust that historic barns could, and should, be adapted for modern agriculture, and that they were treasures worth preserving. In 1987 a national ``Barn Again!'' competition was launched, jointly sponsored by the National Trust and Successful Farming, with financial support from John Deere & Co. and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, two major agricultural corporations.
More than 500 farmers from 34 states responded with entries. Their barn rehabbing projects ranged in cost from $300 to major $100,000 overhauls.
Eighty-five winners were selected on the basis of innovation, practicality, cost-effectiveness, and good preservation practices. Traditional uses for the restored barns varied from hay and hogs to grain storage, machinery sheds, shops, and dairies. Diversified barn-use enterprises included the selling of Christmas trees, growing mushrooms, housing a farmer's market, and use as a square dance hall.
Many of the farmers and their families did the work themselves in pay-as-you-go phases. For instance, Tim and Catherine Broer of Iowa Falls, Iowa, renovated a 1940s-vintage barn for farrowing. Kevin and Anna Heuiser of Sikeston, Mo., turned an unused dairy barn into a modern machine shop.
Tim and Martha Manchester of Lakeview, Ohio, converted a 1908 round barn into a soybean seed-cleaning and storage facility. And Stewart and Judith Schlafer of Stockton, Ill., are using a renovated 100-year-old horse barn for dairy cows.
The 85 winners, announced last summer, spent an average of $11,400 on their rehabs, and each demonstrated that old farm buildings could indeed be adapted to the needs of modern agriculture. Four demonstration barn projects in various areas were used to test creative solutions for reuse, and to illustrate preservation techniques.
Janis and Ted King, who operate a 369-acre grain and livestock farm near Knoxville, Ill., sought the assistance of the National Trust in making their enormous 1865 barn a demonstration project for the ``Barn Again!'' program. With the help of barn restorer Dave Clolek, as well as the state historic preservation agency, a barn architect and engineer, the essential renovation was accomplished for $8,725, plus another $2,500 to wash and paint the barn. The project included restoring the crumbled foundation, raising the hayloft, fortifying the flooring and the roof, jacking up the barn, and replacing broken windows and rotted sills.
Mrs. King notes that the barn has always stood as a landmark in the area.
``During our four-week `demonstration' period we had over 500 visitors to the barn from five states,'' she says. ``We still have people driving in off the road every week just to admire the great restored barn.''
THE Swobodas - Irene and Jim - spent less than $1,000 to restore their 84-year-old barn (also a demonstration project) in Chippewa County, Wisc. They did all the work themselves. They patched the roof with cedar shingles; they spent $400 on lumber and hardware to build sliding doors, and $250 for paint to brighten the barn's exterior.
Successful Farming's reports on these projects have been prompting farmers to take a second look at their old barns, with an eye to restoration. The magazine also has made a commitment to run future articles about good examples of barn preservation and adaptation.
The National Trust is also committed to a continuing ``Barn Again!'' program. Humstone says the trust is analyzing for future use all the competition entries in order to build a database of information that can be shared.
``Everywhere we go we find that farmers want to talk about their farms and their family histories,'' says Steve Gordon, survey manager for the Ohio Historic Preservation office. ``Some say they want to preserve their family heritage as typified by the barns built by their forebears.''
Says J.Jackson Walter, president of the National Trust: ``Old barns, reborn, can stand proudly for generations to come and remain a vital part of our rural heritage.''
A free booklet titled ``Guide to Barn Rehabilitation'' is available from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, 511 16th Street, Suite 700, Denver, CO 80202.
Hubert Wilhelm of the University of Ohio's Geography Department has prepared a 55-minute videotape called ``The Barn Builders.'' Contact Professor Wilhelm, Clippinger Hall, University of Ohio, Athens, OH 45701.