America’s Barns Are Disappearing

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Timber framed with siding of vertical boards was typical in early New England. Red is a traditional color for paint. Connecticut.

Vintage barns once dotted the landscape but each year there are fewer. Restoring these landmarks preserves a piece of history.

The quintessential gambrel style red barn reflects America’s agricultural roots but it is vanishing at an alarming pace. A drive through rural America is proof positive that this proud symbol of American history is fading away. Like the stone walls of New England, preserving barns is a step toward restoring the past.

Why are America’s Barns Dwindling?

According to Charles Leik, President of the National Barn Alliance, barns have become superfluous. ‘In my area [Michigan], everyone used to keep dairy cows. Now there aren’t any. Everyone is ‘green’ farming: corn, soybeans.” Jim Lindberg, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, agrees. In the September 2009 issue of Country Living Magazine, he says, “With more than four million farms having disappeared since the 1930s – fewer barns are sheltering horses or stowing hay these days.”

Some historic barns are demolished to make room for new fields while others simply fall in, crumbling due to weakness and neglect. But others have been systematically dismantled and their wood and beams sold for new construction. Authentic hand hewn barn beams can be used to add character to a new home while bran wood is often used for floors and paneling. Developers have been accused by heritage groups of stripping the country of historical buildings.

Can America’s Antique Barns Be Saved?

Preserving these historical landmarks can and is being done but the work is often expensive and tangled in red tape. The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Barn Again program helps people and communities who want to restore historic barns. Lindberg points out that in order to save a barn, “it helps to have a use for it.” Many vintage barns have been restored and repurposed into community centers, residences, shops and such.

One such success story is that of the Benedict Barn near Ionia, Michigan. Slated to be destroyed to make way for a Walmart Store, author Jan Corey Arnett, also known as The Barn Lady, commenced a crusade to save the vintage structure. On her website, she writes about it being an historic landmark, “…often, as travelers approached Ionia from the south, they were told, ‘You know you are close to Ionia when you see the big read barn.’ Corey, who will not take total credit, prevailed against Wal-mart and the barn was saved. On her web site she writes, “Construction began in January 2008 at Sherman Lake YMCA Outdoor Center in Augusta, Michigan, some 70 miles south of Ionia, where the new/old barn will be used for educational programming and the care and keeping of farm animals.

What is the Future of America’s Landmark Historic Barns?

Barns are icons of American culture. They represent a simpler time. These farm buildings sheltered livestock and acted as storage for farm implements and hay. Perhaps one will again be able to drive along a country road and enjoy the simple pleasure of seeing a barn standing tall in a field; an historic monument to America’s past.