Old buildings 'barn again'
Aging barns are the focus of a growing rural-preservation movement
Whether you're driving down a busy Interstate highway or a quiet rural lane, your eye automatically focuses on a barn. Any barn. A massive stone barn that blends into surrounding fields. A wooden dairy barn with an impressive gambrel roof. A Pennsylvania Dutch barn with quaint painted designs.
But if you think you've been spying fewer barns recently, you may be right. The hard truth is that barns are disappearing - faster than many realize.
The state of Vermont estimates it loses 1,000 of its 30,000 barns each year, and nationally the news is worse - an estimated half have vanished during the past 50 years, victims of fires, demolition, or simple neglect.
The problem is, farmers have to make a living and often can't afford to reconfigure or adapt outmoded buildings, especially when crop prices are down.
Restoring an old barn can cost $25,000 or more, depending on what has to be done.
Even then, the structure may not return to its original agricultural use. Older barns are anachronisms. Their design, says Bill Kimball of the National Barn Alliance, dates to a time when loose hay storage was a major function of barns.
To adapt to modern farming, old barns often must have their interior spaces enlarged and door openings widened to accommodate larger machinery.
Still, it's a task that many barn owners undertake willingly, often with the help of barn preservation groups (see story on page 15). The restored barns profiled here hold within their walls many memories for the owners.
Birthday parties for farms are rare. So, when a party celebrates the joyful fact that a farm has been in the family for 100 years, the farm's barn better be dressed to the nines. That's what Galen Finkbeiner concluded.
Given the deteriorating state of his prized barn, Mr. Finkbeiner knew he had two choices: either spruce up the towering, Gothic-roofed structure, or tear it down.
If he rehabilitated it, where would the money come from?
One of Finkbeiner's uncles suggested e-mailing relatives, suggesting they pitch in a dollar or more toward the barn's restoration. The appeal struck a chord, and $8,000 was contributed toward repairs, which totaled $25,000.
The restored beauty made a glorious centerpiece for the family's 2000 reunion. "Normally we have about 60 or 70 show up on Memorial Day, but that year some 230 signed the guestbook," he says. Relatives came from as far away as Italy and Bolivia.
The 42-foot-high red barn is such a landmark that Finkbeiner's son, who works in Boise, Idaho, says it's even known there, 350 miles away.
Living in the heart of a basketball-loving state where thrilling games are called barn burners, Joey Kubesch traces some of her fondest childhood memories to playing pickup games against her brother in the family barn.
Today, she works diligently to maintain not just that barn, but also three others on the property. "Since 1974, we've kept up with things," she says, describing the "patch-and-go" maintenance she and her husband, Sid, have spent $50,000 on.
The property originally was owned by Joey's great-great-grandfather, James Cole, who bought it for his daughter, Kate Cole Porter. Her son was famous Broadway composer Cole Porter.
The family's oldest barn, built in 1904, is called the Good Enough barn because Joey's grandmother, when asked her impressions of the building as a teenage bride, said, "It's good enough for me."
Currently receiving a lion's share of TLC is the main barn, a 40-by-100-foot white giant that's the biggest of the bunch.
Finding a contractor to stop the leaks and rebuild the crumbling fieldstone foundation of such a classic wooden structure is not easy, so Mrs. Kubesch considers herself fortunate to have found Amos Schwartz, a local Amish builder. "When Amos finishes, he says the barn is going to be good for another 100 years," she relates with satisfaction.
Because Andrée Conklin and her blacksmith husband, Dan, live on a lightly traveled road, their barn doesn't enjoy the visibility of those along Interstates. But the building is such a treasure that the New York State Barns and Preservation Program awarded the Conklins a $25,000 grant to restore it. Even then, Mrs. Conklin figures the sum covered only two-thirds of the cost of extensive work.
The couple want to keep the barn's agricultural heritage alive, even if it has almost no commercial potential at this point.
"You can't milk cows in a 200-year-old barn with no electricity, no gutter cleaner, and no concrete floor; it's illegal," she says. "This is a historical remnant."
Experts who've looked over the barn believe it was built between 1800 and 1810. Called a scribe-rule barn, its noninterchangeable framing members are marked with Roman numerals.
The low ceilings suggest it was built for oxen, before people used horses for draft animals.
The barn is close enough to the road to invite curiosity. "If people want to visit, we can't turn them away, because state funds have been put into it," Conklin says. "But we also put our own funds into it, and don't want it to be a tourist attraction."
When Ray Nicol was a boy, his family's dairy farm in Newton, N.H., was surrounded by other family farms. Not anymore. "The abutting farms are mostly house lots now," Mr. Nicol says sadly.
He and his sister, Michele, are determined to preserve as much of the pastoral character of the area as possible, and today they claim the last active farm in town.
Since 1986, they've spent about $60,000 on an aging barn that Nicol believes could be the crown jewel of the the property. Some of the money came from selling a dairy herd, and the rest from a bank loan, reluctantly granted. "The bank wanted us to level the barn and put up a new, efficient building," Nicol recalls.
Banks have a hard time putting sentimental value on paper, his sister adds. But the siblings persevere because they view keeping the farm, which their parents bought in 1945, as a privilege.
The appeal of barns is universal, which means that almost everyone wants them saved. To help accomplish this goal, barn- preservation groups have sprouted across the United States since 1987, the year the National Trust for Historic Preservation began its Barn Again! program. It and the National Barn Alliance, which took root in the Midwest in 1996, provide advice, information, and referrals to numerous barn owners each year.
In some states - such as New York and Vermont - barn- remodeling grants are available through government programs. Iowa offers barn-restoration funds through a foundation. Other states may offer property- or income-tax relief for rehabilitating historic buildings. And Congress is considering a new agricultural bill that incorporates financial incentives for rehabbing barns 50 or more years old.
But budget pressure could affect some of these programs. New York's two-year-old barn-saving program faces an uncertain future due to expected budget cuts.
Marsh Davis of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana calls barns an American cultural resource that can't be replaced.
They're often restorable, however, especially those with enduring post-and-beam timber frames.
It's the exterior, though, that the public sees and is enamored of, whether the friendly facade of a towering prairie barn, a round Shaker barn, or rambling New England connecting barns.
In an effort to shine the spotlight on barn preservation, the National Trust last year named a 150-year-old Indiana barn as one of America's 11 most endangered places.
Although some barns are being turned into homes and inns, barn-preservation groups hope to save the striking structures for their original uses. "We want them standing in 100 years," says Jacqueline Schmeal of the Iowa Barn Foundation.