CONNERSVILLE – Gwendolyn Gutwein is on a jag, making oil paintings of the old wooden barns of Indiana.
Her goal is two barns a county, 184 all told. She’d better keep busy, because the old barns of Indiana, monuments to and icons of bucolic ruralism, are quickly disappearing.
Many are more than 100 years old, and in a time of large-scale corporate farms, with their thousands of acres and their supersized equipment, old barns are relics. Today’s giant combines won’t even fit inside their doors, for instance, and so are housed instead in new, much larger, not-much-to-look-at barns made of metal.
So the classic old barns – These are great American landmarks, in the words of Indiana Landmarks president Marsh Davis – are being allowed to collapse into heaps. Or they’re being dismantled, and their beautiful, weathered wood sold off to make rustic interiors for high-end second homes.
And so it’s possible that in the very near future, say in 20 years, old wood barns could be as rare as covered bridges.
Gutwein finds it all distressing. These barns are our heritage, she told the Indianapolis Star, dabbing at her easel in front of the Scholl barn, built in 1840 (she works plein aire), and not just the construction, but the wood in these barns is from Indiana’s virgin forests.
It’s beech, said Wayne Scholl, the barn’s owner and the great-great grandson of the farmer who built it. It was squared up by hand, with an adz.
Scholl, 67, is a meticulous steward of his family’s barn. He isn’t rich – he’s a retired rural postal carrier – but he’s sentimental. He points visitors to his great-grandfather’s faded signature on a darkened board in the barn’s interior: Elias Shull, Nov. 18, 1863.
In the 19th century, the Scholls were the Shulls. He proudly introduces the Scholl-in-waiting, son Philip, a biology teacher in nearby Knightstown who’s poised to take over the farm (which at 227 acres is a hobby these days and requires a second job).
A few years ago, Wayne Scholl put a new roof on his barn, which is the key: An old barn, if it’s kept dry, lasts and lasts; but once a roof starts leaking, water gets into the wood and a barn’s days are numbered. But the new roof cost $10,000, and most barn owners don’t want to throw $10,000 at old barns with limited use.
Counting up wood barns isn’t an exact science, but a 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture census found that there were 664,264 built prior to 1960 that remained standing on working farms, a fraction of the 3 million barns the National Trust for Historic Preservation counted just a decade ago.
That census didn’t count barns swallowed by subdivisions but still standing, or barns that have been repurposed, such as the one in northern Indiana that’s now a golf course’s pro shop. Or the barn at Barn Swallow Farm, one of a handful of old central Indiana barns available to rent for dances, parties or weddings.
Nor did it count the barns that have been dismantled and re-constructed, such as Hendricks County’s Cartlidge barn. The Cartlidge was in the path of Avon’s new YMCA, so last year it was taken down to be re-erected at the county fairgrounds in Danville. Its future is as a museum/party hall.
It’s expensive, painstaking work, dismantling and re-erecting old barns. It is a type of preservation. But it’s not the same as having a barn in its natural habitat, and it’s rare: If it happens a half-dozen times a year it’s a good year.
The barn population is obviously shrinking, and fast.
Mauri Williamson, a longtime Purdue University administrator and expert on barns, in 2002 estimated Indiana had 30,000 wood barns still standing, or about a 10th as many as the state had a century ago during the heyday of the family farm (in 1900, Indiana had 221,897 mostly small farms; today it has 60,000 mostly huge ones).
Today, Williamson figures there’s maybe 20,000 barns still standing, and the USDA’s census would seem to bear him out: In its 2007 tally, it found just 22,439 barns across the state.