Monday, September 13, 2010


Image by Bruce Trimble: OK Quarter Circle Barn, Built in 1933

America’s barns provide a nostalgic link to yesteryear. Before the advent of gasoline powered tractors, when teams of horses provided the necessary energy to produce our country’s food, the barn was the hub of American farms.

It was in the barn where the farmer sheltered horses, stored hay and grain, fed livestock, milked cows, stored and mended harnesses and other tack. The barn provided warmth and protection needed for birthing farm animals. Our agricultural ancestors conducted much of their daily business in the family barn–it often provided space for dances, weddings, church services, community meetings and a spacious, exciting play arena for farm children.

In Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Valley, a tour of America’s past is offered in the form of a self-guided barn tour. Following an excellent guide book, The Wallowa Valley Barn Tour II (see details at the end of this blog) visitors are given driving directions to several area barns.

The nostalgic barn tour involves barns of all sizes and shapes, many of which are being used today though rarely for the purpose for which they were originally built. The snow-capped peaks of the Wallowa Mountains tower over rolling fields of hay, peas, wheat and other crops, accenting the area’s spectacular variety of barns.

The flavors of country are bountiful here. In the early summer, fields of brilliant wildflowers--purple, yellow, white and orange--provide excellent photographic opportunities. Meadowlarks, barn swallows, magpies and owls are in generous supply and the air is filled with their melodious songs. Deer graze with little fear, as long as visitors keep their distance. Stock–horses, cattle and sheep–view newcomers with curiosity and it’s not unusual for horses to crane their necks over the fence to get a better look.

You can drive for miles before encountering another vehicle, and then it’s inevitably the locals’ vehicle of choice, a diesel, 4-wheel drive, flat-bed pick-up, sporting one or two border collies (the obvious dog of choice) scrambling to balance themselves on a tool box in the back. These are working dogs, by the way, not your fluffy city pooch. These no-nonsense dogs have real work to do in gathering, cutting, and generally keeping stock in line. Many of the dogs looked as though they would neither appreciate nor tolerate a pat on the head by a stranger.

Especially in the early days, many farm families lived in sub-standard housing while investing their money and labor in erecting a sturdy barn. The barn was the core of their existence, a necessary element from which their livelihood stemmed.

Barns often reflected builders’ ancestry with design characteristics of German, English and Scandinavian influences. Later, barn designs of New England, Pennsylvania and Kansas were transplanted and adapted to America’s West and built with materials at hand. Roof slopes, barn construction, the shape of windows, rain hoods, ventilating cupolas, lightning balls and weathervanes often indicate a barn’s cultural history. The sides of Pennsylvania Dutch barns often sport colorful geometric decorations known as hex signs, occasionally seen in western barns today.

Connected farm buildings, called rambling barns, evolved so that the farmer could avoid trips outdoors in harsh weather. At the same time, the configuration of a rambling barn blocks winter winds, providing a protected barnyard for the animals.

The color red is a common color for a barn and is traditionally the result of old-time farmers preserving their weatherboards with a mixture of materials at hand–red oxide from their soil, linseed oil from their flax crop and casein from cows’ milk. Or, to cut expenses, a farmer could sometimes get a free paint job by allowing a company to paint an advertisement on his barn.

Barns connect us to our past but the need for them has become functionally obsolete. Work horses once used for plowing, planting and harvesting have been largely replaced with high-powered machines. Today, specialty buildings have largely taken the place of the all-purpose barn.

Preserving barns is a noble endeavor which provides a link to our past. Caring for these structures is expensive and time-consuming. Even so, replacing or repairing a roof, painting, shoring up the side of a barn, buys communities time to cling to our country’s agricultural past, a chance to recognize and appreciate our heritage.

In some parts of the country efforts to preserve barns have gained popularity. While the individual family farm is slowly disappearing, there are still families whose livelihood depend on their land and what it can produce. Many of these families are investing time and money to preserve their barns. In some cases, community organizations have chipped in to save barns from their inevitable demise.

Touring Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Valley barns, whether to photograph, sketch, paint or simply appreciate, is immensely rewarding. Viewing yesteryear’s barns gives us a rich appreciation of our rural heritage and of those people who today are preserving that heritage by lovingly caring for these relics of the past.

Acknowledgment: An excellent guide book, The Wallowa Valley Barn Tour II, provides pictures and historic information on the area’s barns. The book is available through The Bookloft, 107 East Main Street, Enterprise, OR 97828, or call (541) 426-3351.


Kathleen Ernst said...

I love old barns. Thanks for sharing!

Janet Riehl said...


My father and I know old barns well. One still sits below his home. We've put up hay there and sheltered animals over the years. Thanks for your information on the family barns of yore.

Janet Riehl

Heidiwriter said...

I've always been fascinated by old barns as well. A wealth of history, there!