CONNERSVILLE – Gwendolyn Gutwein is on a jag, making oil paintings of the old wooden barns of Indiana.
Her goal is two barns a county, 184 all told. Shed better keep busy, because the old barns of Indiana, monuments to and icons of bucolic ruralism, are quickly disappearing.
Many are more than 100 years old, and in a time of large-scale corporate farms, with their thousands of acres and their supersized equipment, old barns are relics. Todays giant combines wont even fit inside their doors, for instance, and so are housed instead in new, much larger, not-much-to-look-at barns made of metal.
So the classic old barns – These are great American landmarks, in the words of Indiana Landmarks president Marsh Davis – are being allowed to collapse into heaps. Or theyre being dismantled, and their beautiful, weathered wood sold off to make rustic interiors for high-end second homes.
And so its possible that in the very near future, say in 20 years, old wood barns could be as rare as covered bridges.
Gutwein finds it all distressing. These barns are our heritage, she told the Indianapolis Star, dabbing at her easel in front of the Scholl barn, built in 1840 (she works plein aire), and not just the construction, but the wood in these barns is from Indianas virgin forests.
Its beech, said Wayne Scholl, the barns owner and the great-great grandson of the farmer who built it. It was squared up by hand, with an adz.
Scholl, 67, is a meticulous steward of his familys barn. He isnt rich – hes a retired rural postal carrier – but hes sentimental. He points visitors to his great-grandfathers faded signature on a darkened board in the barns interior: Elias Shull, Nov. 18, 1863.
In the 19th century, the Scholls were the Shulls. He proudly introduces the Scholl-in-waiting, son Philip, a biology teacher in nearby Knightstown whos poised to take over the farm (which at 227 acres is a hobby these days and requires a second job).
A few years ago, Wayne Scholl put a new roof on his barn, which is the key: An old barn, if its kept dry, lasts and lasts; but once a roof starts leaking, water gets into the wood and a barns days are numbered. But the new roof cost $10,000, and most barn owners dont want to throw $10,000 at old barns with limited use.
Counting up wood barns isnt an exact science, but a 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture census found that there were 664,264 built prior to 1960 that remained standing on working farms, a fraction of the 3 million barns the National Trust for Historic Preservation counted just a decade ago.
That census didnt count barns swallowed by subdivisions but still standing, or barns that have been repurposed, such as the one in northern Indiana thats now a golf courses pro shop. Or the barn at Barn Swallow Farm, one of a handful of old central Indiana barns available to rent for dances, parties or weddings.
Nor did it count the barns that have been dismantled and re-constructed, such as Hendricks Countys Cartlidge barn. The Cartlidge was in the path of Avons new YMCA, so last year it was taken down to be re-erected at the county fairgrounds in Danville. Its future is as a museum/party hall.
Its expensive, painstaking work, dismantling and re-erecting old barns. It is a type of preservation. But its not the same as having a barn in its natural habitat, and its rare: If it happens a half-dozen times a year its a good year.
The barn population is obviously shrinking, and fast.
Mauri Williamson, a longtime Purdue University administrator and expert on barns, in 2002 estimated Indiana had 30,000 wood barns still standing, or about a 10th as many as the state had a century ago during the heyday of the family farm (in 1900, Indiana had 221,897 mostly small farms; today it has 60,000 mostly huge ones).
Today, Williamson figures theres maybe 20,000 barns still standing, and the USDAs census would seem to bear him out: In its 2007 tally, it found just 22,439 barns across the state.