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Urban dwellers are stepping in to save 'prairie cathedrals'

August 19, 2007|David Mercer | The Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN, ILL. — As a kid in Oregon, Larry Kanfer saw horizons dominated by the steep, green slopes and peaks of the Cascades.

When his family moved to table-flat Urbana, Ill., Kanfer, a photographer, found that what first appeared to be the monotony of Midwestern plains was broken by its own, more modest peaks -- the roofs of barns that once were the heart of every farm.

Now those barns are fading from the landscape, victims of their age, urban sprawl, the expense of maintaining them and their lack of a practical purpose.

"The barns have been the center of American rural life for centuries," Kanfer said in an interview at his Champaign gallery, where the walls are dominated by pictures of barns and Midwestern landscapes. "But they're really going away pretty quickly."

It's tough to say just how many barns dot the American landscape, or how quickly they're falling down or being torn down. But barn preservationists say they're disappearing at a fairly rapid clip, particularly in the Midwest.

Rod Scott of the National Barn Alliance, a preservation group, estimates the U.S. has maybe 2 million barns, down from what he figures was the peak, around 1920, when there were 6.4 million farms in the country. Each, he figures, had a barn or two.

Except in the Midwest, "nowhere else in the world can you see what we call the 'prairie cathedral,' " said Scott, a New Mexico native who became fascinated by barns when he moved to Iowa in 1998.

And nowhere else but at the barns, according to Kanfer, will you hear the stories he's heard over the last few months he spent crisscrossing Illinois. He hopes to publish a photo book on Illinois barns, his own way of preserving them.

On a cold, windy afternoon, Kanfer photographed the old barn on Jerry Paulson's family farm just outside Rockford, in northwest Illinois. Paulson's family, with a lot of help from friends and neighbors, built the barn in 1935 to replace one that burned. To thank their friends and open the place, the Paulsons threw a barn dance and, on a July night, several hundred people broke in the new wood floor.

"My grandfather, being a very frugal Swede," Paulson says wryly, "saw an opportunity to make a little money to pay off the barn."

Every summer from 1935 until the United States' 1941 entry into World War II, Saturday night was dance night at the Paulson barn. His grandmother sold Cokes, and women from the National Grange cooked hamburgers.

"It didn't take long, charging 25 cents a person, to pay off the loan," Paulson says.

Kanfer also photographed a barn in Elmwood, Ill., that dates to the 1840s. It served as a signpost on the Underground Railroad, a lighted lantern signaling that it was safe to pass, said Kanfer's wife, Alaina.

Illinois' last 16-sided barn, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, collapsed in late May after being battered by high winds just days after Larry Kanfer photographed the structure. It was known as the Teeple barn, named for its builder, and stood in Elgin for 122 years.

In addition to their frailty, old barns also are expensive to maintain, said Wallace Yoder, president of the Bloomington, Ill.-based Barn Keepers, which works to maintain barns, mainly in McLean County. Two surveys conducted in the mostly rural county, in the 1950s and 1990s, found the number of local barns had dropped to 1,200 from 5,500.

Then there are taxes, Yoder said, which invariably rise when a barn is fixed up.

And the barns -- particularly in grain-farming states like Illinois and Indiana -- serve little practical purpose. Barns were built primarily for livestock, but commercial livestock farming is a small business in much of the Midwest. Grain farming is more profitable than all but the biggest cattle or hog farms, Yoder said, but old barns aren't big enough to store modern combines, planters and other farm machinery.

"Someday, we wake up and the barns are all gone, it's gonna be tough to educate our future generations," he said.

Most interest in saving barns, Scott said, comes from urban dwellers and others like himself with no direct connection to farming. Modern agriculture emphasizes progress, while historic preservation is an expensive luxury that most farms can't afford.

"We're literally at the end, in a generation, maybe two, of this great family farming era, which was pretty much from the 1600s to now," Scott said.

Scott and others in Iowa have had some preservation success -- in part through tax credits and other incentives -- enough that barn enthusiasts in states like Illinois are admiringly jealous.

The National Register lists about 600 Iowa farms; 44 in Illinois.

Kanfer thinks he knows why people who live in cities and suburbs want to hang onto barns.

"There's not a daily connection with the landscape, or history and the elements," he said, adding that some farmers maintain those connections through their old barns.

Kanfer watched a farmer tear down a barn a few months ago near Neoga, Ill., because he couldn't afford to keep it.

"The wife was there, the son was there, and the father," Kanfer said. "It was a real sentimental kind of issue."

Listening to Paulson talk about his now-scattered family -- with one brother in Wyoming and another in North Carolina -- the barn is part of what binds them.

"One of my fondest memories," he says, "is really going into the barn when it's winter and cold, and being hit by that warm, pungent air coming down out of the barn."

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