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Efforts Made to Save Historic Michigan Barns

08:46AM Sep 06, 2014

Barns decorate Michigan's landscape, from rural rolling fields to the outskirts of cities, where they're tucked between subdivisions as relics of an earlier time.

They fill grown-up rural kids with misty memories: the smell of hay, their grandfather's horses, 4-H pig and sheep projects.

They fill others with a sense of history or the possibilities of what well-worked land can yield.

"They definitely symbolize our agricultural heritage," Vera Wiltse of Coleman, who's on the board of directors of the Michigan Barn Preservation Network, told the Lansing State Journal.

But the broad-shouldered structures — built for working — are enjoying a moment in the spotlight as they become destinations in and of themselves.

They're featured on a new, 10-stop Quilt Barn Trail in Mason County, for example.

And renovated historic barns in suburban or tourist areas have found growing use as venues for weddings and other special events.

Clare Koenigsknecht of Fowler has spent years restoring barns.

Koenigsknecht, 69, recalls playing in the classic gambrel-roofed barn built in 1939 on the property where his parents lived. His father had a team of horses, Queenie and Nellie, and they used lanterns to light the barn because only the house had electricity.

The barn of his youth — known as the Bauer barn — was in disrepair and its owners planned to replace it with a pole barn. In 2008, he moved the 32-by-72-foot structure down the road to the Koenigsknecht family farm. He and other family members spent three years rebuilding and enhancing it with a new roof, siding, doors and floor. It's now used for Koenigsknecht family events.

The restoration earned one of the 2014 awards bestowed by the Barn Preservation Network. Founded about 20 years ago, it has about 300 paid members statewide and a mailing list of 500. The organization has its annual conference at MSU each March in connection with Agriculture and Natural Resources Week.

Koenigsknecht said it's sad to see a collapsed or sagging barn in the countryside.

"It's hard to understand why people wouldn't appreciate them more," he said.

Many Michigan barns are timber-frame construction, using locally cut wood for support beams, often oak and ash, he said. Some farmers would build their own; others would hire building crews that engineered barns with their own signature styles.

He said anyone thinking of restoring a barn should get a qualified expert to look it over.

"Some that really look rough are very repairable," he said. "You can take a very grim-looking barn and you can make it like brand new."

Wiltse has a modern pole barn on her rural property, but grew up in the next section over with a historic barn.

She said historic barns can give many clues to life in earlier times.

"If you look inside a barn and look at how it's configured, you can usually kind of tell what agricultural practices took place on that farm," she said. "Some of the earlier barns that were built housed horses, chicken, cattle, everything. And then agriculture became more focused, and so the barns changed."

History figures prominently in a growing barn trend, the Quilt Barn. It's not unique to Michigan; it's been done in other states. Families paint 8-by-8-foot plywood quilt squares, then hang them on their barns. They may choose a traditional quilt pattern or a personal theme with meaning for the family.

The Mason County Quilt Trail will offer audio messages about each barn and farm by phone as people drive along the trail, said Kim Skeltis, who is on the committee putting the trail together.

"A lot of these are private barns," she said. "This is very unusual to have an explanation of the quilt story and the family heritage behind it."

The initial Mason County Quilt Trail includes 10 barns, but Skeltis said other farmers already have called to find out how they can participate and she expects the number of barns will grow for future years.

Koenigknecht said he has seen a shift in the way people are thinking about barns.

"Fifteen years ago I'd mention to people I was restoring barns and the comment would be, 'Why?'" he said.

Now, people are beginning to understand the possibilities of barns.

"One thing that's really gaining in popularity is using barns for a wedding venue," he said.

One local barn-for-rent example is the renovated R.E. Olds Anderson Rotary Barn at Woldumar Nature Center, remodeled in 2004. The rustic space can accommodate up to 210 people.

"We've had weddings almost every single weekend May to November," said Victoria Churchill, events coordinator at Woldumar. "We also rent it out for other events."

"A lot of brides and grooms like the rustic, country feel," she said.

Koenigsknecht said he hopes more Michigan barn owners will come to understand how important it is to preserve them.

"I think they're an important part of our heritage, and we should try at all costs to preserve as much of our heritage as we can for future generations," Koenigsknecht said.