Iowa Public Television


Preserving Pennsylvania's Barns

posted on July 24, 2009

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For centuries, the American barn stood as a testament to the value of hard work and a rural way of life. But, like the covered bridge and one-room schoolhouse, the barn is rapidly disappearing from the landscape.

Though threatened by urban sprawl, decay, and changes in farming practices, thousands of barns still remain.

And as an incentive to preserve the symbols of agricultures past, a federal income tax program allows a credit equal to 20 percent of the amount spent rehabilitating a historic barn.

As producer Laurel Bower Burgmaier discovered last fall in Pennsylvania, a growing number of "barn huggers" is working to preserve the iconic structures.

Robert Ensminger, Barn Historian: "I'm prejudice. I'm a Pennsylvania German, I can't help it. They're some of the largest and most magnificent structures, using medieval timber framing. They're very interesting from a technological point of view and they reflect the traditions of the European regions in which the settlers came. So they bring all these things over here replicating European barn landscape in Pennsylvania, and it spreads right across country. It's a neat story."

Robert Ensminger is an internationally renowned barn historian and is considered the foremost expert on the Keystone state's iconic structures. He literally wrote the book on "The Pennsylvania Barn," which has been described as the first comprehensive study of an important piece of American vernacular architecture –the forebay bank barn, better known as the Pennsylvania German barn.

Market to Market tagged along as Ensminger toured Pennsylvania's picturesque Oley Valley, showcasing some of his state's architectural treasures –many still in use today.

Bob Ensminger, Barn Historian: "The first barn, grundscheier, the Hopus Barn, was built by a Casper Maul who was a Hessian from the North Central part of Germany. He brought his barn style with him and he stayed here after the revolution. His farm was only 50 acres. So, it didn't require a real big barn. So even though they were building two level bank barns at that time, he chose to build a typical ground level grundscheier barn for his small farm in Oley Valley."

Barns in this region typically are classified as either banked or ground, with the latter variety having no basement.

Pennsylvania is one of few states that has a style of barn architecture that bears its name. The traditional Pennsylvania barn is a type of banked structure built in the U.S. from about 1820 to 1900. The most distinguishing feature is the presence of a forebay, an area where the barn overshoots its foundation. These barns were banked or set into the hillside to ensure easy access to both the basement and the level above.

Bob Ensminger, Barn Historian: "The barn we're at now was the next generation of a true Pennsylvania barn which has a bank plus the diagnostic forebay. Since it's two levels it was much bigger. You could house cattle and animals in the basement stable. You could store hay and straw in the upper level. You could thresh on the threshing floor. So, it was a versatile multiple purpose barn which became the model then for the barns that developed beyond it larger and built, being built of different materials as time went on."

Today, many of these symbols of America's agricultural past are threatened by demolition. Too often, the weather-worn structures are razed to make way for "progress" and part of Pennsylvania's heritage is lost forever.

Bob Ensminger, Barn Expert: "They preserve the past in terms of the traditional building forms. They show how technology was used in farming in the good old days and although its changed, the amazing thing about these Pennsylvania barns is that they're still versatile enough to serve farmers today…We know those people were building out of tradition more than from plan. It shows their European origins, the style of barn they had. It shows that they were hard working industrious people. They had to be to survive on a farm in those days."

Along with Ensminger, an enthusiastic group of people is working to preserve and protect these historical icons. A few years ago, the Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of Pennsylvania, or HBFF, was created.

Sheila Miller, Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of PA: "Our purpose and goal is to do as much as we can to make these barns remain standing here in the state of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately because of a lot of urban pressure and neglect, we're losing historic barns at a very rapid pace. We are here to try and slow that down, even if it means retro-fitting these barns to other uses. We want to keep as many of them standing where they were erected in the first place, and if not, at least move to a place where they can be preserved."

The HBFF works with many local, state and national organizations to record and save historic barns. In 2007, its board of directors developed a standard survey to help owners share information on their individual barns. They wanted an inventory of the kind of barns that remain on the Pennsylvania landscape, their locations, and reasons farmers keep them as integral parts of their farming operations.

Sheila Miller, Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of PA: "The foundation is also going to be working very closely with our congressional delegation. To get them to put the money where their mouth is I guess is the best way to say it."

Miller served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for 14 years and was chairman of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. She hopes her background will benefit the foundation.

Sheila Miller, Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of PA: ""Both the 2002 and the 2007 Farm Bills, they put language in for historic barn preservation grants. The funding never materialized and we're hoping 2009 Congress will actually go ahead and put money towards that grant program."

A familiar site on many Pennsylvania farms, barn architecture is as varied as the heritage of the farmers who settled the state's early frontier. The timbers and stones taken from the land combined with hard labor resulted in long-standing storage buildings that provided a safe haven for harvested crops and livestock.

Bob Ensminger, Barn Expert: "There are two barns on the property. One is 1787 with a date 1837 with another date. One's an early Switzer Barn was stone construction, a classic stone Switzer. The other is a typical standard Pennsylvania Barn of the earlier 1800s and they're they're built one against the other."

Last June, the HBFF welcomed the National Barn Alliance to Pennsylvania for its annual conference. For the first time, these two non-profit associations brought together enthusiasts from seven states and the District of Columbia.

Sheila Miller, Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of PA: "We want to make it a bit more uniform with what the National Barn Alliance is doing. We want to try and determine where throughout the Commonwealth where these barns are located and get them recorded."

Bob Ensminger, Barn Expert: "My hope is not only to document them, this is the first step. But in the process of documenting, we get people interested enough to want to maintain them and keep them. If they're going to be used, they're going to stay."

For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.


Tags: agriculture barns history news Pennsylvania preservation