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Barns: A Disappearing Icon on the American Landscape

Travel our country’s backroads and no doubt your view will include time-forgotten, weathered-worn barns, enduring symbols of America’s earliest settlement history.

Once one of the most important structures on a homestead, built to protect animals and crops, assets central to a homeowner’s existence, today, these barns can be found in various stages of use and neglect, more valuable for the nostalgia they evoke and their Americana imagery than the storage items they now house. Although that’s changing as fans of American Pickers and collectors everywhere can attest. ‘Barnstorming’ has become the fun, new way to unearth collectible finds, bringing fresh pickings to an antiques-turned-Americana marketplace.

When rural life in America dominated, barns varied in style and purpose, yet each was built with common sense, a specific intent, and economy, says Howard P. Mock, a Chicago-based architect and preservationist.

“The types of barns that were built varied based on the settler’s country of origin. People brought their ideas from their home country and that was what they built in America.” This practice was rooted in the fact that there were no blueprints or guide books for building barns. Knowledge of barn-building passed from generation to generation, so people built what they knew from their background when they came to this country to start a new life. However, as Mock points out, the farm’s geographic location resulted in certain necessary adaptations that made their ultimate design, uniquely American.

Just as barn designs varied based on where their builders came from, and often adapted based on geography and practicality, they were also sized to accommodate purpose. For example, says Mock, barns that were built to house cows and store hay in a hayloft were larger than those that housed sheep or goats or were built for storing specific crops.

Another element many of these old barns have in common, and what makes them so symbolic, is the color red.

Originally, barns just kept their wooden exteriors. Painting them seemed like a waste of time and money. Paint became a necessity, however, as farmers began to look for a way to protect the wood. Wooden barns need to be protected and sealed from the weather, insects, and other elements that damage structural integrity. Red paint became popular because of its functionality and cost-effectiveness. Having a darker color on the barn’s exterior attracts more sunlight and keeps the inside warmer in the winter. Some people believed red barns would also help prevent cows from getting lost.

Up until the late 19th century, paint options and building materials were limited, so farmers would make their own paint from cheap, everyday products such as linseed oil, milk, lime and rust. Linseed oil comes from flax plants and acts like a sealant. The oil stains the barn wood an orange, reddish color. Iron oxide, or rust, prevents fungi from growing on the wood and turns the paint mixture a deep red color.  When paint became more available, many people continued to choose red, contributing to the tradition of red barns across America.

By the start of the second world war, the need for and purpose of a barn had changed with the sharp decline in the number of American family farms. No longer needed to house the grain, crops, and animals essential to the farm’s existence and the homeowner’s livelihood, these barns were left to decay, along with the long-forgotten contents left inside.

At some point in the first half of the 20th century, barns went from a structure of necessity to the family and property’s storage facility for the used, broken, obsolete, discarded, found, and outgrown. Old furniture, project cars, collected items, obsolete farm tools, military trunks, household appliances… As a result, generations of history and artifacts lay untouched and forgotten, sealed inside crumbling historic structures overrun by nature.

Interest in these over-run and decaying barns as more than a passing, tangible contribution to the vernacular landscape began to change as we entered the 21st century with a renewed appreciation for Americana, “things associated with the culture and history of America.” Pickers-collectors of early Americana love coming across and rooting through old barns. As many an episode of American Pickers can attest, you never know what you will find! We share some of these ‘barn finds’ and the stories behind them in this issue. We also take a look at the history of barn auctions, get a tutorial on barn quilts, and learn more about Colonial Era barns and the Round Barn at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, MA.

While interest in the stored contents to be found in barns is leading more brave souls to go where no one has gone for sometimes 50 years or more, there is still the issue of what to do with the barn structure itself. Demolish it? Restore and re-envision it as a venue, studio, or home? Dismantle and move it for restoration at a new location? Salvage the wood and elements for re-purposed projects? All of these options are in play today, proof of the enduring popularity of the American barn and our desire to reclaim, restore, and collect items and stories from our past.