An old barn that sits along Highway 41 in Madera, Calif., was painted in the… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Madera, Calif. — In this part of California's Central Valley, where the city turns to country and the flatlands to hills, there stands a barn painted like an American flag.
It was built amid the open fields that stretch along California 41 — a gateway to Yosemite National Park — and it's a rural slice of America the Beautiful. Spacious skies? Check. Purple mountain majesties? That would be the Sierra Nevada.
In the 10 years since the barn got a red-white-and-blue makeover, it's become a bit of an icon in a region sometimes called the Bible Belt of California and the Midwest of the West.
"It sticks out because it's a big barn painted like a flag but, still, it seems natural for it to be there. It just fits," said Sandi Orcutt, 47, who lives a few miles from the intersection of California 41 and Avenue 12 — known in these parts as "the corner with the barn."
Orcutt's son, Josh, spent 15 months in Iraq and is now serving in Afghanistan. Orcutt's been known to get teary-eyed when she passes the barn, yet she says it's a sight that makes her happy.
The barn and the land beneath it belong to Robert and Karen McCaffrey. They're emblematic of the area as well. Both come from fourth-generation farming families but now work as developers, turning former ranches into housing tracts.
"I'm someone who loves the land," said Karen McCaffrey. "Whether it's for farming or building homes."
The corner with the barn is slated for eventual development, but with the housing crash, there are no immediate plans, the McCaffreys say.
It was on a morning in 2001, just days after the 9/11 attacks, that Robert McCaffrey said "I've been thinking about it, and I'm going to paint our barn with stars and stripes."
"It was just our own way to express love of county during a difficult time, but it seems to resonate," Karen McCaffrey said. "It's taken on a life of its own."
High school classes, engaged couples, volunteer fire departments and Yosemite-bound tourists have all posed in front of the flag barn. Last year, Major League Baseball filmed it.
They said, "It's the All-American game, and you have the All-American barn," Karen recalled.
Those who conduct their own Internet searches using the keywords "flag," "barn" and "Avenue 12" find the website of the Kitchen Table Gang Trust, who describe themselves as a "bunch of ragtag military types" trying to help veterans, as well as soldiers and Marines overseas. They're also on Avenue 12, giving their location as "just down from the world-famous red-white-and-blue barn."
"Our only connection is that we use it as a locator," said Charles Taliaferro, 74, a retired Navy man. "But we get letters from all over the country asking, 'What's the story on that barn?' "
"Plus you have all these tour buses on their way to Yosemite," Taliaferro added. "Yesterday there was a busload from Italy there taking pictures. So I stopped. When they asked me the significance, I told them it was a reminder of hope after 9/11."
In addition to sending care packages overseas and visiting veterans hospitals, the Kitchen Table Gang Trust runs a free service that properly disposes of American flags.
They ask anyone with a worn or tattered flag to send it to them. Each year, beginning on Flag Day, they hold ceremonies, complete with a military honor guard, to put the flags at rest. This past June it took three days to get through the 2,000 or so flags people had sent.
For Taliaferro, it's a happy coincidence that he happens to live down the road from a barn painted like an American flag.
"I don't know the psychology business of it. I just know it's a humbling sight and brings back a lot of memories," he said. "It gives me renewal every single morning when I go out and every evening when I come back."
Initially, the barn bore an image of a yellow ribbon with the words "Support Our Troops" painted on the west end facing the highway. After it was defaced with what is believed to be gang graffiti, the McCaffreys had it painted over in solid blue.
Josh Orcutt, 26, misses the ribbon.
He's home on leave from Afghanistan, where he and his patrol dog, Riky III, search for explosives. He said he's packing in as many activities as he can before he goes back this week. He went sky diving with his dad (who's retired military), ate at his favorite barbecue place and visited Pismo Beach. During his next leave in the fall, he is scheduled to be married.
"I still picture the barn with the big yellow ribbon," he said. "On my first tour in Iraq, I had a picture of it hanging in my Humvee. It was my inside joke. It's a flag. But it's open space, agriculture. To me, it's home. And that ribbon was a warm reminder of why I joined."
Even without the ribbon, he likes that the barn is a landmark.
"Around here, when people are giving directions they'll say, 'Look for the big red-white-and-blue and you'll know you're going the right direction,' " he said. "It makes me smile every time."
Marcum is a Times special correspondent.