Historic barn enthusiasts preserve living agricultural heritage

Steve Stier thoughtfully considered the reasons he, as president of Michigan Barn Preservation Network, and others like him, believe the barns of Michigan should be preserved, even revered.  

"The old barns are a living history book of our agricultural heritage," he says. "The pole buildings of today, I don’t honor them with the word 'barn.'"

Michigan Barn Preservation Network (MBPN) is a statewide nonprofit organization of barn owners and enthusiasts. Enthusiasts, Stier says, include a wide range of people with eclectic interests in barns: preserving and maintaining barns, making models of barns, photography of barns, creating artwork of barns, and the generally curious about agricultural history.

"Our members include all kinds of people with all kinds of interests, including farmers and those who wish they could farm or who live on property with barns," Stier says.

MBPN, he says, was started in 1995 at Michigan State University with a mission to raise awareness about preserving barns throughout Michigan, along with growing an endowment to do so. The raising of an old Michigan barn at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. the prior year had also raised interest in preserving barns.

MBPN now holds annual conferences, workshops on barn repair and maintenance, barn tours, and occasionally members gather to help in a barn raising.

"We’ll be doing just that this month," says Stier. "We are helping to raise the Stone Coop Farm in Brighton for an organic CSA (community-supported agriculture) that needed an old barn. They acquired two old barns, took them apart, and moved the materials to a new site. We’ll have about 20 people involved, assembling the parts on one day, standing the frame up the next."   

Stier is one of 12 board members for MBPN. He grew up on a small farm in central Michigan, "and hated it." He laughs. "Growing up, I saw my father do a lot of work for very little pay. It was a hard life. Now, I wish I’d paid more attention to my father’s work."

Leaving the farm life when he reached adulthood and independence, Stier built a career in construction, earning several degrees along the way, including a second master’s in historical preservation. Over the years, it was that interest that grew.

"I realized that I hated new construction," he says. "I’ve worked on barns the last 15 years or so, but I’m interested in all kinds of preservation, not just barns."

Some of the oldest barns MBPN members have located, Stier says, are in Washtenaw County. By looking at construction patterns they discovered the barns date back to around 1830.

"One of the ways that we can tell a barn's age is by looking at the saw marks," Stier says. "Circular saws came in later, around 1850, and they make a different pattern. The older barns have saw marks that go up and down, back and forth. And you can see the hand-hewn timbers."

The original, oldest barns are the ones that intrigue MBPN members most. "The ones that haven’t been modified over time," says Stier. "So many have gotten changed over the years. Roofs changed, add-ons. If someone has an old barn, our hope is that those people will contact us. We can help people find the right resources to maintain the barn, do assessments, find contractors."

It’s not known how many historic barns are still standing in Michigan. The work that goes into determining that has, in part, gone to, MBPN board member Vera Wiltse. Wiltse is involved with an ongoing survey to count the still standing barns throughout the state.

It’s a big job, Wiltse says. "We started the survey in the early '90s. We'd like to determine the rate of decline, how many barns we have still standing. People stopped building barns when the small farms stopped operating, and the large-scale farming operative took over. But people are getting interested in small farming again, and so barns have a purpose again. I like seeing that."

As some barns are being returned to farm uses, others in Southwest Michigan are part of the movement toward creative reuses of historic barns, such as Southern Exposure Farm in Battle Creek and the Hayward Barn House in Mattawan where a barn believed to be from the 1930s has been converted to a home for Russ and Angie Hayward and their children. 

Historic Sullivan Barn in Battle Creek also has found new life -- this time around as a high tech office building that houses six companies. The architect on the project undertaken to rescue the barn obtained National Historic Building designation for the building and the related tax incentives to develop the $1 million project. Architects Inc. working for JRS Development says the barn was stripped of roof and wall shingles as part of the project. The barn's original stucco finish was simulated in the new exterior for the building. Sandblasting was used to clean the building, interiors were reinforced, and skylights installed.

Wiltse’s interest and involvement with historic barns began when she piloted a 4-H program in Midland County. She’s been with MBPN since the organization's beginning.

"I started gathering the numbers for a 4-H program, and I've been gathering the numbers ever since," she says. "But it's hard to get all the data. We are dependent on people telling us what's out there. We offer workshops on maintaining barns, but people don’t always get back to us on what they have."

Wiltse, too, grew up on a farm, and she lives on a property with a barn now. The farm life holds continued appeal to her, even though she no longer actively farms. "My husband died nine years ago, so now I’m leasing out my acreage to another farmer, but we used to have 20 or 30 cows and a bull. Every spring, the fields were full of calves. There’s nothing prettier than a Black Angus on a green field of hay."

That sense of nostalgia, induced by the sight of a red barn on a green field, dotted with cattle, says Stier, is another reason MBPN preserves barns. "Everyone seems to have a strong feeling at the sight and smell of a barn. It’s an overwhelming, almost subliminal feeling of nostalgia, even for those who have never lived on a farm. I think it’s a genetic memory."

Annual membership to MBPN for one person costs $30, and for two people, $40. Other memberships, such as a lifetime membership, or a membership for a contractor, are also available (see the MBPN website for more information). 

"One of the more unique barns is the round barn," says Stier. "They use plank construction, and the theory was that round barns are less susceptible to wind and a better use of space, with a silo in the center and livestock feeding around the silo. There may be 20 or 30 still in Michigan, but it was too hard to find the builders to build them."

"Too often we see dilapidated and abandoned barns," adds Wiltse. "What we want people to know is that if you have a barn, no matter what the condition, please contact us. We can help."

"Barns are a symbol of peace and quiet," says Stier. "You can see the bones of the building when you walk inside. A barn is the most honest piece of architecture."

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.     

Photos by Erik Holladay
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