Iowa Public Television


Barn Restoration

posted on June 12, 2009

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According to the American Farmland Trust, or AFT, about half of America's two billion acres of land is committed to agriculture.

Since farmland tends to be flat, well-drained and affordable, AFT estimates that every minute America loses two acres of agricultural land to development. And over the past 20 years, the average acreage per person for new housing almost doubled—with the best agricultural soils being developed the fastest.

And as America's fertile fields succumb to development and disappear forever, so do the rustic barns that once dotted the rural landscape. Increasingly though, landowners are investing time and money in hopes of saving the iconic structures. Andrew Batt explains.

In the last fifty years, changes in farming practices have altered the rural landscape dramatically. In Iowa, it's estimated that only 60,000 barns remain of a legion that once numbered over 200,000. And the Hawkeye State loses 1,000 more barns every year.

Jacqueline Schmeal, Iowa Barn Foundation: "Can you imagine Iowa without barns, without corncribs, without silos? And all these metal buildings are just going up everywhere. We're just going to look like an industrial park like much of the U.S. is starting to look. And if we can save these, it's going to be special."

Jacqueline Schmeal is the president of the Iowa Barn Foundation… a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Iowa's rural buildings. Scmeal says the barns are "symbols of Iowa's early agricultural heritage and a way of life that is disappearing." The Foundation provides matching grants to farm families for barn restoration. In exchange for the grant, the owners sign an easement obligating all future owners to keep the barns in good repair.

Shirley and Larry Ellis have lived on their farm near Lytton, Iowa for more than three decades. Their classic structure is a local landmark known as "The Big Red Barn." Built in 1918, the barn is 40 feet tall to the eaves and features of 3 x 12-inch A-frame timbers.

Over the years, the Ellis' have worked on nearly every structural component of the barn, from the ground up. The work included replacing and, in some cases, relocating siding, doors, windows, and the entire roof.

Orinally built for dairy, "The Big Red Barn" benefited from and Iowa Barn Foundation Grant. And while the Ellis barn no longer used as a dairy, it continues be a safe haven for traditional farm animals, like chickens and the few head of cattle the Ellis' own. The main residents of the barn, these days though are Red Rock Arabian Horses.

Larry Ellis, Lytton, Iowa: "I'm really proud of it. I really am. It was just a neat project altogether, and this winter when the animals are in there and you can go to bed at night and know that they're housed nicely, that gives you peace of mind too. So, it was worth it. Yes, it was worth it. I'm pretty proud of it. I'm as proud as the guy who built it."

In 2001, the Ellis Barn was on the first All-State Barn Tour held by the Iowa Barn Foundation. Held annually, the tour is a weekend-long open house of barns that have received matching grants from the foundation. The 2001 event was the first of its kind in the nation and drew thousands of barn enthusiasts from 20 different states.

Dennis Heflin, Harlan Iowa: "As we get older, we get more of an interest in saving some of this history for future generations and I think that's what's happened here. We just all have to age before we realize maybe there is a reason why we should do this."

Dennis Heflin farms near Harlan, Iowa and the barn on his family's farm has been a stop on eight of the Iowa Barn Foundation's All-State Barn Tours. Built in 1901, the classic structure has served four generations of Heflin's.

Dennis Heflin, Harlan Iowa: "So we've seen life go through here, we've seen death happen in it and just about anything and everything else in between."

With its four-gabled roof line the Heflin barn is distinctive. At one time, there were several similar barns in Shelby county, but today only the Heflin barn remains.

Dennis Heflin, Harlan, Iowa: "To me, if we didn't see barns part of the landscape, it would signify that we're not maintaining our heritage, were not maintaining the history that was there, and that we're just letting the old go away and just let them be no more. "

The reasons people cite for restoring their barns are as diverse as the structures themselves. Family heritage was the primary motivation for Charles Anstey to renovate his barn near Massena.

Charles Anstey, Massena, Iowa: "I did it to kind of remember my parents and grandparents—grandfather. He built the barn, for my folks. as a wedding present when they were... the following year after they were married. The house and the barn both, at the same time."

For others, like barn enthusiast Wendy Elliot, there is a spirituality in barns. With their cupolas that reach for the sky, Elliott sees the iconic buildings as cathedrals of the cornfields.

Wendy Elliot, Colo, Iowa: "I've always like going in barns ever since I was a girl because I think you can almost feel the spirit of all the animals that have been in the barn. So, I think it's definitely a sanctuary and I think it also represents the heritage of the entire state."


Wendy Elliot and Joe Rude were Midwesterners living in New York City who decided to return to Iowa when their children were born. The barn on the property they purchased was in such disrepair that it took two different house movers and a team of Amish builders to straighten the building. Lee Gelder helped repair the roof.

Lee Gelder, Elliot-Rude Barn: "I think it's fairly important that people do this. I know my children really don't have any idea what the purpose of a barn is. They just look at it as a big old building that is 90% of them are empty. If somebody doesn't do something, children are not going to know what a barn was even used for in another 20 years. You'll be lucky to find a barn."

For "Market to Market," I'm Andrew Batt.


Tags: barns Iowa news preservation real estate rural