Farmers Preserve Their Aging Barns

14:31PM Aug 25, 2014
iStock Old Barn

For nearly 100 years, an architectural marvel has stood watch over fields of corn and soybeans near Franklin, Ind.

The barn was constructed it in 1918. It has been part of Michael Dragoo's farm since his grandfather purchased the property in 1946.

Sturdy wooden beams, cut from trees less than a mile from the farm, are anchored in hardened dirt base. The pieces were connected with massive pins that held the structure together. Ribs made of the timbers hold up the roof, which has been replaced over the years to hold off the elements.

"I put metal on the outside of it, so it doesn't look like an old barn anymore," Dragoo told the Daily Journal. "But the main part of the barn is original."

Johnson County's agricultural heritage is captured in the thick hand-hewn lumber frame, the white-washed plank exteriors and the cavernous interiors of local barns. Built to serve as protection for livestock, equipment and crops, the structures have become more appreciated as architectural marvels.

That appreciation has bred a growing effort to save historic barns. Instead of letting the structures rot away, enthusiasts are working to ensure that future generations can appreciate the craftsmanship, simplicity and sturdiness of these wooden barns.

"When people settled this land 200 years ago, they were using native timbers, and these barns were meant to last hundreds of years," said Carolyn Rahe, president of the Indiana Barn Foundation. "The craftsmanship and workmanship that you see in these barns is unparalleled. We owe it to our ancestors and the people who worked to build them here to save these barns."

Johnson County features a variety of barn styles and designs.

Dairy barns with the gambrel roofs, roof dormers and multiple windows are common. Straight-roofed English barns illustrate the power of simplicity — no fancy ornamentation, just pure function.

The county even features a round barn, one of fewer than 100 in Indiana. Owned by Sam Kemp on his Circle K Farm in rural Franklin, it had been used to keep cattle and horses during the winter. The animals were kept around the outside of the structure, leaving the center open for work, he said.

But the classic wooden Indiana barn quickly is becoming an endangered species.

According to the Indiana Barn Foundation, only around 20,000 wooden barns are left in the state. That compares with about 30,000 in 2000. Historians estimate that in the early 1900s, Indiana boasted nearly 200,000 barns.

The foundation was formed to help owners maintain and repurpose the barns on their property. The group has brought together specialists with backgrounds in agriculture, preservation and the arts to help these barns retain their beauty and form. Eventually, the organization would like to do fundraising to provide grants for barn restoration in the state.

"Everyone appreciates barns, and everyone hates to see them fall, but unless you've tried to maintain a barn, I don't think people understand how expensive it can be," Rahe said. "If we could raise some money, maybe we could help save some."

Though the group just started, they've been reaching out and cataloging the different old barns found throughout the state.

Charlie Stewart, owner of Stewart Farms in Bargersville, has retained the look and uses of his broken-gable style barn.

His farm is a Hoosier Homestead farm, meaning that it has remained in his family for at least 100 years. Stewart's grandparents came to Johnson County in 1902, and the barn was standing when they purchased the property.

His family used to have a dairy operation and kept their heifers and calves in the barn. He now keeps hogs in it.

Stewart has lived on the farm for nearly 70 years. Though he and his parents lived in Bargersville when he was a child, he would spend long summers with his aunt and uncle on the farm.

"I didn't like town, so I'd come out here to help. Then I'd go back to Bargersville when school started," he said.

After a few summers of that, his aunt and uncle suggested that he just live at the farm full time. He has ever since.

Because of that heritage, Stewart has made it a point to keep the barn in good shape. He has replaced rotting wooden planks with metal exterior to extend the life of the barn.

The barn posts were originally built on rocks, and multiple times Stewart and his family have jacked up the structure up so they could remove the rock and replace it with a more stable foundation.

"My grandparents had built it, and they wanted it kept in good shape. So that was important to us," he said. "I'd hate to see it fall down."

Dragoo's gambrel-style barn has been adapted to meet the needs of modern farming.

"This barn was built really big for that time. It's actually something I could still use now. I'm using it for a machine shed," he said. "That original part of the barn, I've kept it."

He cut a door into the back so he could drive his tractors and cultivators in and out easily. To hold his larger machinery, Dragoo added a 30-foot-long lean-to and keeps the smaller machinery in the main barn.

But reminders of the past are all around the old structure. In the concrete pad, near the entrance of the barn, builder M.B. Ferger carved his name and the date the barn was started — June 14, 1918.

The message motivates him to keep the barn in good condition, Dragoo said.

For many barn owners, maintaining that history is of utmost importance, Rahe said. As she has spoken with more owners about their barns, she's learned how much they feel these old buildings serve as a symbol for farming in Indiana.

"For a lot of people, it means a lot that it's stayed in the family. They're going to do whatever they can to keep it standing," she said. "Even if there is no monetary payback to repairing it, it's something that's part of their heritage."