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Photographer Barnstorms County

September 23, 2002|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stalking past a farmhouse near Ojai, Ron Fischer spies his quarry through a row of orange trees.

A few paces to the left, a near tumble into a mudhole, a quick recovery, a steely eyed gaze through a viewfinder at the broad side of a barn--and bam! No. 107 is officially bagged.

"That's some gorgeous building," Fischer says in a booming, nice-to-meet-you, Midwestern voice. "Turn of the century, probably."

If barns were movie stars, Fischer, a 69-year-old retired mechanical engineer, would be selling their photos to the tabloids. He is crazy about barns. In the last 18 months, he has photographed barn after falling-down barn, with at least 108 now under his belt. One day, he hopes, he will reach his goal of photographing every barn in Ventura County.

Why?

Because the smell of horse manure and hay can lift the spirit in a way that most city dwellers will never know. Because old wooden barns are disappearing, tumbling with age or giving way to shopping malls and subdivisions. Because, reminding us of a golden time that will never return, barns ennoble.

"I wanted to make sure they weren't lost forever," says Fischer, who has a photo exhibit at the Oxnard Public Library and recently displayed his work at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art's Yesteryear Festival. "Who knows, maybe 50 years from now, people will look at these pictures and say: 'Remember when there were barns in Ventura County?' "

That isn't a question the National Trust for Historic Preservation wants to hear. About two-thirds of the 6 million or so barns that dotted the American landscape in 1920 have toppled, and the Denver-based group is trying to persuade farmers and communities to save the rest.

"I've never had a person regret saving an old barn," said John Olson, a spokesman for the trust's Barn Again! preservation program. "But I've had plenty of letters from people who regret tearing them down."

Some local governments have made a point of counting the old barns on their turf, but preservation efforts often begin with enthusiastic amateurs like Fischer. "They're our grass-roots people," Olson said.

A man with a mission, Fischer hasn't been thwarted by "No Trespassing" signs.

"I knock on the door to see if someone's home," he says. "If not, I just take the picture. I haven't been shot at yet."

Mostly, he says, growers have welcomed him, chewing the fat about their land's history and sometimes opening up the barn doors for a view of the old tractors, rusty tools, strawberry crates, horse tack, burlap sacks and assorted what-nots within.

"I can't tell you how many times they've said, 'Why haven't I taken any pictures of the barn?' " he said.

Fischer, who is thinking of putting out a Ventura County barn-of-the-month calendar, finds his subjects mainly through word-of-mouth. At the recent museum festival, he heard about a barn tucked between an automotive shop and a 1910 Craftsman bungalow on Ventura's gritty Thompson Boulevard. He snapped it on the way home.

One recent morning, he set out with his wife, Beverly, to track down a barn he heard about from a couple of customers at the wholesale popcorn business he runs in Oxnard.

When they finally found it outside Ojai, Beverly stayed in the car, trying her luck on a hand-held poker machine. She accompanies Ron on most of his forays--"I have a cell phone in case we have to call the cops," she said--but she retains a genial detachment from the job at hand. "A barn is a barn is a barn," she said.

In search of yet another barn, they cruised in their Chevy van to Upper Ojai.

"No barns here," said a man on the rambling grounds of the Ojai Foundation spiritual retreat. "Just alternative structures."

Just how many barns exist in Ventura County is something of a mystery. The U.S. Department of Agriculture counted 2,214 farms in 1997, but that figure is open to question, said Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau. Besides, he points out, some farms have no barns while others have more than one.

A volunteer photographer at official ribbon-cuttings and other Oxnard civic events, Fischer has combed the farm-rich Oxnard Plain for historic barns. He has penetrated the Santa Clara Valley and the Ojai area, but his inroads in the east county have been more limited.

He was welcomed at the Scholle family's ranch in Somis, where two old barns have been used for hay, horses and, over the last 15 years or so, for humongous, country-themed Halloween parties.

Fischer photographed them and a painter captured them in watercolors.

Looking out her kitchen window on a red barn that is at least 75 years old, Pat Scholle contemplates its place in her family's life.

"We've painted it, we've put a new roof on it, and we've shored it up because it was leaning," she said. "When it goes, it'll be like the passing of an old friend."

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