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From Wisconsin Public Television's Wisconsin Barns: Stories in Wood and Stone
 
 
Jerry Apps
the author of 'Barns of Wisconsin'.

The full text of the interview done for the new Wisconsin Public Television special 'Wisconsin Barns: Stories in Wood & Stone.'

 

Q: Why did you write a book about Wisconsin barns?

A: Thereís an interesting story connected to that. Of course having grown up on a farm I spent a lot of time working in a barn and at that time I must say I didnít appreciate it very much, as a youngster trotting out to the barn twice a day to milk cows in all seasons of the year. But, as the years went on and as I left the farm there was something about that experience that haunted me and sort of pushed me toward thinking back to what that was like and recounting that experience.

I had written a book called, The Land Still Lives, in 1970 which is the history of this farm where weíre sitting right now (Wild Rose, Wisconsin) and Glen Pound was the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at that time and Glen had liked the Land Still Lives book. His friend Allen Strang was an architect in Madison for many years and Allen and Glen went to the same church. And Allen was interested in painting barn pictures and one day he came to Glen and he said Iím looking for somebody to write captions for some of my barn paintings because I want to publish them and Glenn said I have just the person for you, itís Jerry Apps. Letís ask him and see if he would be interested in writing these captions. So I got this call from the Dean one day.

I was a faculty member in the College of Agriculture then and when you get a call from the Dean there are a couple of things that come to mind. One is you screwed up on an expense account and itís come to the attention of the Dean, which is the worst possible thing. Or even maybe worse you were out someplace and said something that ticked some people off and they called the Dean and now heís going to tell me to change my ways. So I went down to see the Dean and he said Iíd like you to get acquainted with Allen Strang. So Allen and I got together one day for lunch and Allen began showing me pictures of his barns. Now Allen was from Richland Center. He knew a lot about the architectural qualities of barns. He didnít know anything about the culture of barns and he didnít know anything about what the different structures connected to barns were all about. And so I began pointing out to him that this was a hayfork, and this was a manure carrier and such matters as that. And so Allen said, "Would you be interested in writing captions?", and I said "sure." That would probably take me a weekend and then he showed me the 10 or 15 pictures he had. Well we went to a publisher with the idea and the publisher said, "Iím not so sure we want to publish a book with just pictures with captions. Maybe we need a few more words than just a couple of lines under each picture." Allen cringed at that because he had in mind this book of his pictures, watercolor paintings and sketches and so I began then writing the book and completing it and until Allen died he always said with a twinkle in his eye said to me, "Jerry how much better this book would have been had it not had so many words in it."

So thatís the story of how the barn book (Barns of Wisconsin) came about. It was a combination of my interest and knowledge about things that I hadnít remembered in a long time. And of course I did a lot of research for it too and I interviewed a bunch of people and did a lot of digging in the library and I just got very interested in what went into these old barns

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Q: People today seem to be very interested in saving old barns.

A: That wasnít always the case. When the barn book came out, which was in 1977, there was not a whole lot of interest, I must confess. There was some. And it did fairly well. But at my book signings and presentations the crowds were not large. Over the last 10 years now, maybe 15, the interest seems to be increasing. Why? The reasons are several. I think many people, urban people, are searching for something. And when you live in the Midwest it is hard to deny that all of us are within two or three generations of living on the land. And thereís something about the experience of living on the land that people are coming back to. They want to rediscover it. They want to visit it, revisit it. And they want to find out what was that like. What was that like with a barn on your property, a working barn with cattle in it? What did that smell like and what did that feel like when you went into a barn on a windy day . . . when the wind was blowing around the corners and rustling under the eaves, when the pigeons were cooing up on the hayfork track? What was that like?

I often talk about it as being in the middle of an orchestra with the music all around you because it is quite musical to be in an old barn. And people today are wondering, gee we farm kids we had a great advantage but we didnít realize it at the time. We didnít think about orchestras and music we thought about hard work and hot weather and pitching hay and putting it in the barn and taking it out of the barn and putting it in the barn and taking it out of the barn and thatís the routine of the farm when you have animals. So people are wanting to rediscover that experience.

Now thereís something else theyíre looking for too. Theyíre looking for the kinds of values and beliefs that rural people had who worked these acres and who worked in these barns. What did they believe in? What did they value? Why did they take care of an old barn as well as they did? Why did they build a barn in 1890 for example that clearly was built to last 100 years, 200 years, 300 years if you keep the roof on it and keep the walls in order. What caused them to believe that this barn would be used by someone in the future, by their children, by their grandchildren they hoped? And, in instances, now by people who do not have a connection to that family who lived on the farm but who want to reconnect to the land. And I find that just absolutely fascinating that people are wanting to do that. They want to rediscover what this farm experience was like. What the family farm was like. The role of the barn, the silo, this milkhouse, the grainery and all of the other outbuildings, what that connection was to the family and to the land. So those are some of the reasons I think that people are coming back to looking to old barns and old buildings and saying thereís something here that defies the rational.

That is beyond the objectivity thatís so much a part of our society these days. Thereís a feeling component. Thereís an emotional component. Thereís a heartfelt component. When I stand looking at this old barn thereís a feeling that comes over me that is different. A different kind of feeling than I get when Iím in other kinds of situations. People often have difficulty expressing that yet they know it when they see it. They know it when theyíre feeling it.

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Q: Did the people who built these barns have aesthetic as well as practical goals?

A: Well an interesting part of your question is what were the attitudes of the old barn builders and the stone masons towards the barns they were building? I said to a barn builder one time, "You clearly are an artist," because this particular barn builder had done some fascinating wood carving on the cuppola which is the wooden ventilator on the top of the barn and he said Iím not an artist in any sense of the word. Iím only interested in making a barn that will last for a very long time, oh and by the way youíve got to add something thatís pretty as well.

Now one time I was talking to a stonemason and we were in the part of the state where fieldstone was very common because this is where the glaciers stopped. Well, these fieldstones make some beautiful barn walls so I asked this old stone mason the same question that I asked of the barn builder. I said, "This is the most beautiful thing Iíve seen. You certainly must consider yourself an artist." He said the same thing. "Iím not an artist in any sense of the word. All Iím interested in is building a wall that wonít crack, wonít shift, wonít fall down, wonít tip over and will hold up this barn." And you look at the wall and itís straight as can be and it has a mixture of red and brown and orange stones. They are of various shapes and they are all put together in a way that is as artistic as any artist would do it yet there was this kind of denial and also a kind of a smirky little smile that would come on the gruff old stonemasonís face saying to me he knew what I was talking about. He just wasnít going to admit it cause thatís not a manly thing to say if youíre building stone walls to admit that youíre an artist of any kind.

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Q: It can cost over $10,000 just to replace a barn roof, to say nothing of repairing the stone foundation and other structural repairs. Why are people today taking on these expensive projects?

A: I think thereís several reasons why people are willing to invest money in restoring an old building. One of the reasons is because some of these folks have direct family ties to the building. They maybe are 4th generation from the builder, a relative, a great great grandfather who may have built this structure and they want to preserve it. Itís a family icon. Itís something they remember from their childhood, perhaps playing in the barn, and they feel some obligation to family to keep this barn in good repair. So thatís a number of people. Then there are others who knew a barn when they were a youngster and now have an opportunity to own it and to work on it and to repair it.

I suspect a still larger group are those who are looking for something in the rural parts of the state and they buy some land and thereís a building on it, a barn, and they donít know what to do with it and they ask a neighbor who knows somebody else to talk with and soon they find that this barn not only is an interesting looking structure but it has a history. It has a history related to who built it, when it was built, how it was used, what sorts of animals it housed and so on and so they get intrigued with the history of the place and that propels them toward doing something in repairing it.

Thereís still another group who are out looking for some of our ethnic barns, barns that were built by some of our early ethnic settlers. It may be a German half-timber barn, it may be a Swedish log barn, it may be a Bohemian log barn and so on we have a fair number of people who are looking for some of these early log structures and are repairing them and doing a good job in preserving them because these barns are such a wonderful symbol of our early ethnic settlements here in WI.. We had by 1900 some 50 different ethnic groups that had settled here and many of these early ethnic settlers brought with them from Europe the building style that they knew in their home country so the first generation of barns were often these ethnic barns. By first generation of barns I mean those built, some of them as early as the 1840's, but many in the 1850s, Ď60s, Ď70s and even a few in the 1880's. Althogh by the 1880's we were moving quickly into the second generation of barns which were the gable and gambrel roof barns and some of that ethnic connection began to diffuse.

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Q: Where are the oldest log barns in Wisconsin?

A: There are a number of places to find them. Northeastern Wisconsin, Kewaunee County, Door County, even south into Manitowoc County and Sheboygan County. There are a fair number of these log barns. But also there are some interesting examples of way north some Finnish barns just south of Lake Superior. And I found a beautiful Swedish log barn on Madeline Island in Lake Superior. In fact, I found a beautiful log barn in Sauk County not far from Baraboo, so theyíre not all in the north either. There are beautiful examples of stovewood construction, which was another early building style, not far from Rhinelander in Oneida County so these early ethnic examples are all over the place. You can still find some good examples of Polish log buildings in Portage County or in northern Brown County in the Pulaski area which was a major Polish settlement.

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Q: What do ethnic structures tell us about the people who settled in Wisconsin?

A: It tells us that they knew how to build a particular kind of barn because they had it in their home country so it tells us that about them but it also gives us that wonderful opportunity which was not the case in Europe because the countries, these buildings were rep by countries are represented in the same community so you can compare a Norwegian barn with a Swedish barn with a Finnish barn in the same community, certainly within a few miles. And you can compare how the Finnish made a log building compared to how a Swedes made a log building. And the Finns were meticulous builders. They would work at a log until you couldnít pull a piece of paper between the logs. Their buildings required no chinking.

When you go into Northeast Wisconsin some of the early German log buildings you can thrust your hand between the logs. They put up the building more quickly and then they relied on chinking to fill in the cracks. What we can learn some really interesting things about these different ethnic log buildings. Another characteristic is how the logs were notched at the ends and each ethnic group tended to do that a little differently and thus we can learn that sort of thing from these early ethnic barns.

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Q: What is the most common barn style in the state?

A: Well the question is a little more complicated than you ask it. We need to know in answering that question what was happening in Wisconsin. Almost everyone in the early days in the southern half of Wisconsin began growing wheat when they arrived here, beginning in the 1830's and on into the 1840s Ď50s and Ď60s. Everyone grew wheat and the only barns that we saw in addition to these little ethnic barns which were used to house horses and a skinny cow or two because dairying wasnít anything at that time. These little buildings, some of them, were used for threshing grain. The three bay threshing barn was an example. And that 3 bay threshing barn came with the Yankees. The Yankees were those who came to Wisconsin from upper New York and New England. So we find some of these wonderful examples of little 3 bay threshing barns around.

It wasnít until the late 1860's and 1870's that we begin to see the demise of wheat growing in Wisconsin. During that time there were insect problems, disease problems, and when you plant the same crop year after year on the same land, wheat, you tend to get a diminishing return. And that happened. When the farmers of Wisconsin made the transition, Iím talking about those who were European immigrants as well as the Yankees, when they began making the transition from wheat growing to dairy farming they quickly discovered that if they were going to be dairy farmers they had to have structures that were larger than those little ethnic barns and those little 3 bay threshing barns. And so we began to see the construction of the much larger dairy barns, the gambrel roof began to become popular in the late 1800's.

Some of the 3 bay threshing barns were actually jacked up lifted up and a wall was put under them so that dairy cattle could be housed underneath. Others of them were modified so that dairy cattle were housed in one of the bays so we left behind the 3 bay threshing barn, we left behind the ethnic barn and we began switching to dairy farming. Now that didnít happen because the farmers in Wisconsin thought it would be nice to have a big barn. That isnít it at all. It had everything to do with the nature of agriculture and economics. Many of the farmers in Wisconsin knew that if they were going to stay here they would have to do something different than grow wheat.

Now you could find some other interesting examples of that transition time. You can find tobacco barns because tobacco growing became popular southern Wisconsin, that would be Dane County, Vernon County, to give 2 examples so thereís some beautiful examples of old tobacco barns that sprang up during that time. Here in Central Wisconsin potato barns became popular because many of the farmers in this region began to switch to potato growing.

In the area south of Baraboo hop growing became a fad more than anything else and we had acres and acres of hops for the beer industry at one time. And you can find those structures around as well so those kind of specialized barns developed during that transition time and what is so fascinating about history and these rural buildings is that many of these buildings remain as symbols to tell us what it was like during that time. Some of those activities remain. We still have farmers, many of them, growing potatoes, many growing tobacco. Well then the big dairy barns appeared and they would cost the farmer $2,000 to $3,000. Today we snicker at that as absurdly low but in 1880 $3,000 was a lot of money. They were built to house cattle. No question about that. They were not built for their aesthetics. They were not built so that 50 years from now or 100 years from now somebody would find them interesting. That was not it at all. They were building it because they had been convinced, these old wheat farmers, they had convinced by the likes of William Dempster Hoard and Hiram Smith and others who happened to be New Yorkers who had moved to Wisconsin, who also had been wheat farmers (not Hoard, he was a newspaper man) They were convinced that maybe dairy farming should be it and it was a long struggle, took 25 years really to move from wheat farming to dairy farming and the beginning of the big barns, from the turn of the century on up through the 1930's, we see these huge old barns being constructed.

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Q: What aspect of old barns are you most attracted to?

A: I am constantly impressed and go out looking for examples of fieldstone walls. To me that is the most beautiful thing that you can find anywhere in the world, a fieldstone wall that is well constructed and theyíre huge. Theyíre as much as 3 feet across and ,7, 8, feet high sometimes. So thatís what captures my attention first. And generally even when a barn has fallen a fieldstone wall remains. They were built so well. We see them all over the state. So thatís one of the things that captures my attention.

Also the octagonal barn, we have a few examples left in Wisconsin. Thereís interesting story behind that connected to, I believe, some people might argue with this, to Orson Fowler who was a speech maker who ran around the country in the late 1800's talking about how it was that all of us have 8 sides to our head and our brains. Thereís a side for loving a side for hating and side for feeling and a side for learning and I donít know what the other ones were. Well Orson Fowler said that all of us, our animals included ought to, because of that 8 sided nature of our being, live in 8 sided houses and our animals should be housed in 8 sided barns. Now if there was any foolishness thatís it but itís a great story. So if youíre thinking in more than 4 sides look up Orson Fowler. Heís got interesting things to tell.

Another thing, I love to look at old barns in the winter. To me thereís nothing more beautiful than a barn roof covered with snow contrasting with a deep blue winter sky with a few cows out in the barnyard in front of it all. To me that is a wonderful scene.

Now another scene that I very much enjoy is the interrelationship of farm buildings. Farmers were not Frank Lloyd Wright architects yet they put together their farm buildings in such an interesting mix of relationships, farmhouse to barn and silo, pig houses, chicken houses, pump houses, graineries, corn cribs. All of these buildings in relation to each other and all constructed to be at a very practical distance one to another. So that the wood shed was closest to the house. The chicken house was probably the next closest because it was the farm wife who had the responsibility of taking care of the chickens and you wanted to have that fairly close to the house but not too close because chicken manure in summer will get you. And then the next building fairly close to the chicken house was the grainery. But the grainery was sort of halfway between the chicken house and the barn and not far from the hog house because thatís where the grain was fed. And you need to know something of how these buildings were used to know why they were placed as they were and another thing that I find fascinating and very exciting in looking at farmsteads is to see the progression of farm history on that farm as the farmer went from having a few acres of corn and a wee little slatted corn crib to now a huge corn storage place setting near by and the old one sits there as well so you can tell something about progression of agriculture history on the farm just as you can look at an old barn often and tell how things have changed over the years.

Letís say that itís a gable roof barn that was built in 1880 and attached to it may be a gambrel roof barn that was built in 1910 and attached to that still might be a steel sided barn gable roof that may have been built in the 1960's or Ď70's so we have generations of barns representing the agricultural change and the shifts in dairy farming but all attached together and so we can learn so much by just looking at the buildings. And then mixed up with all of that we see the history of silos. Now silos are relatively new compared to barns. We didnít have any silos much before 1880's and so you may see a quaint little squatty silo and then next to it may be a big blue glass lined silo which represents one of the more recent ones and just off to the side there may be a huge bunker silo a 100 feet long and 20 feet wide so there we see the progression of silos all of this on the same farmstead.

If you know a little bit about ag history you can read a farmstead and learn just an awful lot from it so I see all kinds of things when I travel around much to the discomfort of my friends because I want to stop and look at something when theyíre trying to get someplace.

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Q: What style of old barn is the most commonly seen in the country today?

A: The most common barn that one finds in Wisconsin is a rectangular barn, gambrel roof, either a fieldstone or a quarried rock wall. There are still several thousand of those remaining in the state, many other kinds of barns, but that would be the most common one. Most of the rectangular barns are bank barns. Now whatís a bank barn? A bank barn is when that middle bay is connected to either a ramp, a constructed ramp or actually is built into a side of the hill, a bank, so that you could drive into the side of the barn easily with a team of horses and a load of hay so thatís a bank barn.

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Q: Why are most barns painted red?

A: Red was the most inexpensive paint that farmers could buy early on. Thatís the main reason why many barns are red but there are also yellow barns purple barns black barns gray barns yellow barns pink barns. Any color you could imagine is represented on a barn including barns that were never painted at all. And some smeared with waste oil to give a kind of sad looking dark appearance that helped preserve the wood. Barn wood does not need to be painted to last a long time. As long as it remains dry, is allowed to dry out, it will last a very long time so paint is an aesthetic thing in many ways. Now it helps some to preserve. Particularly around windows and doors and that sort of thing but barns will last a very long time if they have a roof and if you take care of the barn wall so it doesnít sag. Painting, that comes later.

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Q: Why has it taken so long for people to recognize the value of barn preservation in Wisconsin?

A: There are several things I could say about that. Iíve done a lot of historical work in the East, in Pennsylvania, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. The East has 100 years more history than we do and sometimes it just takes a while before a people appreciates itís past and we were too close I think for a long time in time to our old buildings, our old rural buildings. Now we got started earlier in becoming interested in urban preservation of old buildings and some of that interest I think helped influence people to believe well if itís important to save an old opera house, an urban church, school, whatever, maybe thereís something out in the rural community thatĎs worth saving from a historical perspective as well and so we begin then to see the early beginnings of rural preservation and I think those were the two major reasons.

A farmer whoís spent all of his life in a barn and retired to a farm, some of them are interested in the history of it, but many of them are just tired. They spend all these years milking cows and theyíre happy to relax and you come to them and say, "Oh what a wonderful barn you had," and he might agree but his interest is not the same as someone who has been away from it for awhile, someone like myself who didnít spend a lifetime so far lived working in a barn but spent the first 20 years or so working in a barn. We have a different perspective than someone who spent all their time there.

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Q: Do you think young people place any value on rural preservation?

A: One of the things that Iíve been trying to figure out is what these generational differences are. I give many talks on barns and on rural history and on everything else that Iíve written about and Iím always encouraged to see several generations present and I try to find out something of what attracts them to a topic such as barns. And I donít know that I have it figured out yet. But I think it goes something like this. I think the generation of people who have spent their lives living on family farms as dairy farmers, thereís something nostalgic about returning to stories about the barn stories about the farm stories about haying and thrashing, stories about winter and summer, stories about mud, and dust all of that as gruesome as that sounds to someone whoís not experienced.

Thereís a certain nostalgia that attracts people to barns, they see the old barn as a symbol of that. And once you begin sharing some of these stories, they have their own stories and they want to share their stories and thereís a wonderful exchange that takes place. So thatís some of the nostalgic interest and there is a large number of people around yet whoíve had that experience, whoíve lived on farms. Thousands of them retired now, some of them still living on the land, some of them living in towns. So thatís one large audience.

Another audience are the sons and daughters of these retired farmers who grew up on a farm but now are living elsewhere and doing other kinds of things. And Iím a part of that generation. And what attracts this group, itís a combination of things. Part of its nostalgia because we remember what it was like as a kid working the farm, and working in the barn and all the rest of it but we also have another perspective I think, some of us, our perspective is one of the historical value of these buildings. We see them as symbols of the history of the regions, of the state, of agriculture, itís a symbol of all of that so we have a little broader perspective. And we want our kids now that next generation, my children who have had, who grew up in the city entirely, to have some sense of what it was like to live on a farm, to work in a barn so we those of us in that 2nd generation, weíre trying to pass that on to our kids so now we have 3 generations that are tied to the barn and to the land in one way or another.

Now a 4th generation would be those children of my children who have no direct connection at all. Why should they be interested? And thatís the group that we need to spend some time thinking about how to attract them because the nostalgia part wonít work, its not there. The historical part weíve got to help them appreciate that a rural building is a part of our history, a symbol of our history. It is so difficult in doing historical work to find the symbols, the artifacts that are still present. You can run your hand over a barn board. Itís hard to run your hand over an historical abstract. You canít, itís impossible. A barn is a real thing and I think we can work on that in helping people appreciate it.

Now further, this younger generation with no direct connection, one of the things that Iíve found interesting is to help understand what were the values connected with farm life? What were the values that farmers had who milked cows twice a day. Why in the world would anybody 365 days of the year twice a day milk cows, theyíve got to be insane. And Iíve had people saw that to me. How could you ever ever do that? Part of the values connected to barns and farm life is that! The commitment to the work. A commitment that seems like an irrational commitment to people who look forward to 2 and 3 and 4 week vacations and certainly weekends off and 8 hour days and all the rest of it. The farmers life was not that. Time on the farm was measured very differently. Time was not clocks and watches. Time was seasons and the changing of the seasons. It was just a very different kind of value. People are looking for that.

Thereís some sense of weíve lost our way, I hear people saying. Well Iím not so sure theyíre going to find it in looking at barns and rural values but theyíll get another perspective on what life was like on the farm. Another kind of interesting point is that farms themselves have changed dramatically. A 1930 farm is not a 1950 farm. And a 1950 farm is certainly not a 1990 farm. And that point has to be made as well. When weíre talking about old barns weíre not talking about modern day agriculture, weíre not talking about 1000, 2000 cow herds. Weíre not talking about confined feeding of cattle. Weíre not talking about trench silos, bunker silos and all of the rest of it. Weíre talking about an earlier agricultural period. Now there are those who are interested in learning about that agriculture history.

Thereís a kind of renewal of interest on the part of many people. Where does our food come from? How is it prepared? How many people have touched it since it left the land? And thus we have an interest today on the part of many people in organic farming for example and farmerís markets are very popular and thereís a growing group of people who want to look at that and want to understand that a little bit better.

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Q: What do you predict as the future for our old Wisconsin barns?

A: First I am optimistic. If I were not optimistic I wouldnít be doing this work. I would be doing something else. Why should we attempt to preserve our old buildings? Why in the world should we invest money to do that and it is expensive to put on a new roof and repair a wall. Why should we do that? Barns are links to our history and itís our history that makes us human. Without our history we would not be human beings and barns are a part of Midwestern history, other parts of the country as well, but so much a part of our history so its not any kind of a stretch for me to suggest that as you look at old barns you look at yourself. They are reflections on who we are as a people. And where we have been and maybe just maybe some hint of where we are and where we are headed. And when we allow our history to disappear the symbols of our history it is so easy to be out of sight out of mind and we will begin to forget.

Santayana said, "Those of us who forget our histories are destined to repeat them." So let us not forget. And these old buildings are the symbols that will jolt us from time to time into asking the question what went on here. Who lived here? Where did they come from? How did they make a living? Why do they have lilac bushes out front and old daylilies? And where did they go? And where are their children? And who owns this property now? And whatís farming like now?

When I see an old structure toppling I stand there and scratch my head and I begin asking these questions. And I ask what are we losing when we lose this round barn or an octagonal barn or a multi-sided barn, one of those unusual ones? And people will say to me well so its another barn gone. But itís another piece of who we are thatís gone. So these barns for anybody who lives in the Midwest, they are who we are. Theyíre reflections of our human beingness. They tell us of a time when people made a living on the land, when they cared for cattle all seasons of the year when they packed hay into the upper regions, when they sweated over sick animals, when they were in joy when their kids got first place at the county fair. All of these kinds of memories are wrapped up in these barns. These barns are fonts of stories. Every barn has a series of stories wrapped up in it and a little digging you can find these stories. And stories are such a wonderful way of connecting us to who we are and where weíve been and maybe, just maybe to where weíre headed.

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