Barn Believers work to save iconic farm structures

Drive through the rural countryside and you’ll find barns of all shapes, sizes and conditions dotting the landscape as a testament to the agricultural heritage that shaped and still impacts the state of Michigan (the second-most agriculturally diverse state in the country, behind California). 

Despite the steadily growing business of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and the like, many of the majestic wooden barns throughout Michigan’s two peninsulas (that once housed everything from apples and cherries to chickens and cattle, among hundreds of other commodities) are in desperate need of restoration, rebirth and reuse.

The James E. Bonine Carriage House in Vandalia served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.Non-profits looking to preserve heritage barns used for public purposes can now apply for grants of up to $5,000 through the Barn Believers Community Project Fund. Other qualifying projects include evaluating the condition of a barn to prepare it for relocation to be used for non-profit educational purposes, creating permanent exhibits honoring local farm history, gathering archival information about farms/barns in a specific area, developing barn/farm educational programs and archiving historical barn documents/photographs.

Jan Corey Arnett (aka “The Barn Lady”) is the “instigator” for Barn Believers, bringing her idea to fruition in 2017.

“When the Battle Creek Community Foundation (BCCF) created an opportunity to establish Community Project Funds, the beneficiaries of which could be determined by the fund ‘holders’ so to speak, the fit was right,” says Arnett, who had previously worked for the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and had done contract work for other foundations and nonprofits.

"Barn Believers was created to raise money that could quickly be turned right around and put to work to help save barns and barn history by ‘informing and inspiring’ people about the absolute grandeur and historical significance of our state’s valuable and vanishing barns.”

After eight months of preparation, Barn Believers held its public launch at the historic Barn Theatre in Augusta with the Richard Lynch Band from Waynesville, Ohio, as the headline entertainment.

“There was no question that we would have THIS band because Richard Lynch had just written and released a song titled ‘Worth Saving’ on his new album, ‘Mending Fences,’” Arnett says. “He had written the song after we met at one of his concerts and I told him of my dream of finding a country artist who could write a song about the value of barns."

The band returned for a second concert in 2019 at the Dreamfield Acres barn along Interstate 94, which has the mural of ‘Heart of Heatherbrook’ (the barn being the heart) on it. A two-month barn-themed exhibit, presentations and barns open to visitors were also part of the events that year.”

Another vital Barn Believers initiative assists community groups in advocating for appropriate public zoning policies in rural areas, especially those adjacent to growing urban centers, when it comes to preserving old barns and small family farms in the wake of development and corporate growth.

The Avery granary was relocated to the Calhoun County Fairgrounds.
“Rural communities and farms remaining at the outskirts of exploding cities and townships particularly around Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and northwest Michigan, are being rapidly consumed by commercialism and suburban development,” Arnett says. 

“At the same time as large tracts of good farmable land are being subdivided for increased profit, farmers in some cases, are driving further to find blocks of tillable land," she adds. "Small farms continue to be eaten up by corporate farms which have a huge lobby and political sway. Small farms and heritage farm buildings suffer – good buildings are bulldozed in the name of fast profit while others are left to deteriorate until developers arrive.

"The waste of good structures and what I call ‘devourment’ is unconscionable. Barns need people to be their advocates and step up to seek alternatives to wholesale destruction.”

The issue isn’t unique to Michigan. A December letter from the American Farmland Trust noted the massive rate at which farmland is disappearing nationally. “Every day, 2,000 acres [in the U.S.] of agricultural land are paved over, fragmented or converted to uses that jeopardize farming.”

For those like Arnett, there is an unwavering dedication to protect and preserve these barns and the land on which they sit for future generations to enjoy. That means changing how people think when it comes to their community surroundings and what responsible and sustainable growth looks like.

“People in positions of authority – zoning officials, supervisors, planners, etc. – need to be willing to challenge the way things have always been done and look for win-win opportunities to balance historical value with purported commercial need,” she continues. “What can be done to keep barns viable whether insitu or in a new location to serve a new purpose? What kinds of ordinances and variances can be put in place to give farm and other structures a chance to survive?”

Jennifer Kiel, a Barn Believers board member and editor of both Michigan Farmer and American Agriculturalist, points to the work in Scio Township where conservation easements and collaboration among greenspace-related programs are saving farmland, and with that, some heritage barns.

“Michigan has 18 counties with preservation programs and several township-level efforts as well,” she says. “They are vitally important.”

Given the continued rise of agritourism in Michigan – with families seeking experiences at historic farmsteads, organic farm markets and other unique country destinations – the efforts of Barn Believers are well timed.

Rural communities continue to struggle to regain their sense of place, looking beyond chain restaurants and big box stores that come to town and drive mom-and-pop shops out of business, destroying the community’s character along the way. In its own small way, Barn Builders hopes to reenergize the purpose of and pride in these small farms – and their historic barns.

“There is a realization among many that raising families in healthy ways close to the earth is one of the best things we can do to benefit children and the earth at the same time,” Arnett adds. “While some think barns are relics of the past, others are looking for property with land and a good barn. I have had people ask me where they can find land with a barn and will come right out and say, ‘I don’t care about the house. I want a barn!’ Realtors need to be aware that barns matter.”

Farm equipment and tools on display at a barn relocated to the Historic White Pine Village outside Ludington.

When it comes to repurposing barns into homes, retail outlets, wedding venues or commercial operations (like winery tasting rooms), there is a whole new set of rules and regulations to follow based on local codes and ordinances. Barn Believers hopes their growing network of like-minded individuals can provide resources for others looking to save a barn and give it new life, pointing people in the direction of local governmental leaders who hopefully understand the value historic rural preservation plays in their community.

Ongoing maintenance is essential to the life of a barn and to preserving its potential while reducing repair costs. There are opportunities for schools, college and career centers around the state to develop much-needed hands-on educational programs with an emphasis on historic preservation.

“Dismantling a barn for salvage should be a last resort," Arnett urges. “Keeping a barn standing and preserving its architecture and character are best. If a barn must be dismantled, its owner and/or the dismantler should document the barn in images – inside and out, dimensions and other details to preserve the information for Michigan’s historical archives.”

Preservation of documentation is important, especially when a barn itself is lost to time. To prevent the loss of valuable pieces of farm/barn history, Barn Believers encourages the donation of old photographs, farm records, documents and other memorabilia to museums or historical societies that can evaluate and preserve such collections.

Arnett believes Michigan’s barns deserve the same attention that our lighthouses, lakes and waterfalls receive, noting that visitors could benefit from a statewide map identifying significant structures – especially those open to the public.

“We have been in conversation with others about the creation of a comprehensive statewide directory on Michigan’s pockets of barn/farm/rural history,” Arnett says.

“How many historical villages include a barn? How many historic farms can people visit and where are they – such as Rentschler Farm in Saline for example? Where are the barns that people can visit and be awed by barn architecture and function such as the Thumb Octagon Barn in Gagetown? If a student is doing research on Michigan’s agricultural history and early leaders in barn/farm design, where can that information be found?”

Unlike other charitable organizations, Barn Believers has no members, no dues and no annual events. It is a fund operating through the BCCF. Donations so far have come from around Michigan, the United States and even as far as Australia, from those who are passionate about preserving the state’s historic barns and farm heritage. Since its inception, Barn Believers and its five-member board has issued six grants totaling $23,000 (see sidebar).

There is no set application period for the grants. Nonprofits simply complete a short online application and submit it for consideration. Grantseekers are encouraged to use Barn Believer contributions as a match grant and incentive to attract additional donations for a larger project fund.

While grants can only be issued within the state of Michigan (in any of its 83 counties), Barn Builders is eager to share its information and passion throughout the United States (and beyond). They have created a small booklet called "Saving Heritage Barns," which can be downloaded from its website for free or requested at no charge.

Dianna Stampfler has been writing professionally since high school. She is the president of Promote Michigan and the author of Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses and Death & Lighthouses on the Great Lakes, both from The History Press.
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