Shaw photographs barns to preserve past

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Monstrous wooden barns at one time dotted Iowa's countryside but sadly, because the number of farmers is decreasing and farms are getting bigger, the barns are being bulldozed down or are left to rot away splinter by splinter.

Many years ago, Iowa State University Extension 4-H youth leader Bertha Shaw began taking photos of barns and gathering history of them, asking 4-H'ers for assistance. She now has many, many slides of some of Iowa's unique and even traditional structures and she travels around giving presentations. She was on hand last weekend at the Women in Denim conference and spoke to an attentive audience.

Her interest in barns has been with her throughout her entire life. She was raised on a dairy farm and spent a great deal of time in the structures which housed the animals that provided the livelihood for the family.

It is sad, the presenter expressed, that the barns are disappearing by leaps and bounds. At one time there were 200,000 barns in Iowa and now there are an estimated 60,000, she pointed out, adding that 1,000 barns are disappearing each year.

Many of the structures she has photographed have since disappeared; there is no bringing them back and she is glad she has them preserved in her project.

If only the barns could speak. Because of the history many of them hold, there would most likely be stories of how they served as places of business and storehouses for animals, equipment and supplies and there would be stories of dancing, praying, playing and courting.

To farmers, barns were as essential as the houses they lived in. To many of us, barns represent tradition, hard work and independence. The barn continues to be a powerful symbol, even as it disappears.

The barn designs have come from the different cultures where yesterday's farmers originated. The immigrants brought with them many diverse designs and construction techniques. It is amazing to see how the barns have survived through the years, she said.

A majority of the barns Bertha has recorded were built in the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. Information from many of the barns was acquired from family members still residing on the farms. She has also read a great deal of barn history and related it to the different types of barns seen throughout the state.

Roof shapes have varied. The gambrel style - a name derived from the hock of a horse's leg - is a convenient design with slants going down from two different sized pitches. The design allows for rain and snow to drain from it.

The gothic style curves in a half-circle and provides a great deal of room for the loft.

She has captured a variety of shapes, as well.

The bank barn is built into a hill to allow ground entrance on two floors. Animals were usually kept on the lower level while the upper level was used for storage. The barns were built at a southern angle to allow for maximum sunlight to be utilized for the livestock being house in them.

The idea to build a round barn is said to have come from a religious sect which believed with no corners, there was no place for the devil to hide. These barns are eye-catching today because there are so few of them.

The barn expert has also done research on why the color red is associated with barns. "When you mix iron oxide, milk and lime, the color red is the result," she said of the early paint that was created. Another explanation she has heard is "cows are black and white and if the barn is red, it is colorful to look at." One other theory is that the early barns were painted red when the farmer was in debt and painted white when they were not.

Bertha has photos of barns made of different materials - from wood to logs to masonry to brick - and she has photos of barns that have been transposed into homes and businesses.

Though the barns continue to disappear, there is great hope for many of them with the addition of colorful barn quilts being added to their front. Several quilt blocks have been selected and transferred from paper to 8'x8' or 12'x12'.

The designs are then painted on the sides of barns, creating another unique way to celebrate the buildings which have been so vital to the economic well-being of so many rural communities.

The giant colorful blocks are also being celebrated by quilting enthusiasts.

Bertha retired from the Extension three years ago, after putting in some 25 years. She served in Plymouth, Cherokee, Rice and Hamilton Counties.

She will continue to share her information on barns and she hopes to add photos and information on more of the disappearing landmarks to her collection.

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