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Barn brainstorming

By Greg Wolf

I have always enjoyed barns. We had a barn when I was growing up and I can’t imagine how many hours of enjoyment I spent there, perhaps especially in the haymow. It isn’t hard to evoke memories of the myriad sights, sounds and smells of that barn. I shot birds in it, raised calves in it, harvested pigeon eggs in it, sweated buckets in it, and attended new births in it, and that is just a sampling of events from memory. There were hay forts, there were rope swings, there were monstrous bull snakes raiding the nests, and I confess regretfully there was even some troublemaking going on there at times.

When I moved to Ohio and met and married my wife there, we purchased a rural property that had an old barn on it, and it had the added fascination of the old beams and pin frame construction used in that area and that era of barn building. After a few years we moved to Kansas and it wasn’t long before we settled in the country, and again we found ourselves with a barn. And again, we’ve been drawn to the barn and have accumulated a number of new memories there—I am struck even in writing this just how central a barn has been to where I have lived for almost my entire life.

And no surprise—both the building and the use of barns have been a part of the fabric of rural life for generations. Michael J Auer, in The Preservations of Historic Barns, says:

“As the main structures of farms, barns evoke a sense of tradition and security, of closeness to the land and community with the people who built them. Even today, rural barn raising presents a forceful image of community spirit.”

Now, I’ve never experienced the raising of a barn—I’ve only enjoyed them—three of them in particular. But I’ve got a problem. When I get past the nostalgia, and the sentiment, and the enjoyment—this barn makes no sense! Our present barn was failing when we purchased it, and we had a contractor repair one side that was falling out and square up the entire structure. I was pretty impressed with the repair, but now a decade has rolled by and the roof is failing fast and as it fails the old barn grows ever more vulnerable and endangered.

And so I’m at a barn crossroad—I’m torn between sentiment and sense—make that common sense. The barn doesn’t pay, it only costs, and we are not talking pocket change. How does one weigh the decision of maintaining something that is near and dear, yet makes no real practical sense to do so? In some ways a strategic lightning strike could bring a sad but welcome relief, but I can’t seem to bring myself to any other choice to make it “go away.” And yet I feel so personal about these barns, that watching it fail slowly is painful too.

I’ve done some research into rehabilitation and preservation. Certainly some barns have been reclaimed very beneficially and I admire those that have. But few barns have the uniqueness and quality to be worth such reclamation. Certainly our barn lacks the structural soundness and historic story to merit many dollars. I don’t quite see it as a visitor center, or a restaurant, or a gathering place, or even as some other beneficial use. Of course I’m still scratching my head about it, and in the meanwhile we use it a way that is best described as recreational.

But I’m really thinking about more than barns as I write all of this—I wonder if the barn doesn’t serve as a metaphor as much as it once served as the center of farm life. The farm and its economics have changed all around the barn, and now it stands not as a hub but rather an appendage that must be dealt with, either by laying it low or letting it go. In the last few months a failing barn I drive by experienced the former, and these days our barn is surely feeling the latter. Consolidation in the ag industry and urban encroachment, along with changing farm practices and economics have delivered a verdict of obsolescence on almost all barns, and I’m just sentimental enough to hate watching it happen, although I can’t come up with a comeback that makes any economic sense.

And so the barn still stands, as long as it stands, as a metaphor of good times past, and good days past, and good things past. While most barns will eventually fall to decay and destruction, likely even ours, a few here and there will live on as memorials, most without beneficial use beyond that. While I don’t want to be too eager to turn my back on old times, and old days and old things, I don’t want to cling to a metaphor of them, like my old barn, so tightly that it takes more precedence than good times and good days and good things today. Specifically, my family and our house certainly better deserve any dollars that could be directed to the old barn. And when I look at it like that, I have to wonder…perhaps we have more in common with the original builder of our barn than we know, barn or no barn.

Editor’s note: Greg Wolf is a consultant with Kennedy and Coe, LLC (www.kcoe.com) and works to help clients of the firm navigate toward better returns in all areas of their businesses. He is based in the firm’s Pratt, Kan., office and can be reached at 620-672-7476.

Date: 7/1/2013

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