Red barn or white barn? Wood barn or stone barn? My husband and I have long debated these hypothetical questions on meandering drives through rural Iowa, admiring tidy farmsteads and dreaming — only dreaming — of a life in the country.
But I found myself debating between a standard rectangular barn, a rare round barn or an even rarer square barn after visiting well-tended examples of each during Iowa’s annual All-State Barn Tour, a free, self-guided event featuring 85 restored barns dating from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.
Most of the restorations have been funded with matching grants from the Iowa Barn Foundation, a nonprofit begun in 1997 to preserve barns and, in turn, the state’s early agricultural heritage. In exchange for grants, owners agree to restore their barns as close as possible to the original (no metal siding allowed). They also sign an easement that requires their barn to be open for the public’s edification during the All-State Barn Tour each fall.
The foundation also organizes a Spring Barn Tour — scheduled for June 22-23 in Clayton and Dubuque counties in eastern Iowa. Unlike the All-State Tour, the spring tour features architecturally interesting barns in just a couple of neighboring counties, and the barns have not received foundation grants, so their condition varies.
Over 1,000 barns are torn down across Iowa each year, and with them some Iowa history often vanishes, according to the foundation, whose grants range from several hundred dollars to $30,000.
While visiting four distinctive restored barns on the All-State Tour, I better understood why so many others have collapsed into sunken heaps. Designed for an earlier agricultural era of small farms, these barns of yesteryear are unable to meet the needs of most modern-day farms that have large-scale crop or livestock operations requiring larger, more specialized buildings. No wonder many restored barns now reside beside far less lovely, far more functional metal sheds.
The historic beauties we visited reminded me of the classic barn in the children’s book “Charlotte’s Web,” with small areas to house a few horses and pigs, maybe some sheep, goats, chickens — and the occasional spider. Except there were few signs of life in these barns, although some are used for occasional family gatherings or small 4-H livestock-rearing projects.
Free to explore
One of our biggest challenges with the fall tour was determining where to go during an afternoon drive from our Des Moines home. So many barns. So little time. Thankfully, for easy touring the Iowa Barn Foundation website divides Iowa’s 99 counties into nine geographical groups. It also includes barn photos and maps.
We finally decided to visit four of 12 barns in the central counties, because they offered a good mix. Two women we chanced upon from western Iowa pick a different area every year. One of them was in the process of fixing up her grandfather’s barn. Another twosome we met map out their tour in advance. Smart idea.
Although the barns are off the beaten track, we found them with only a few wrong turns thanks to our cellphone GPS and improvements to rural America’s 911 emergency services that include naming remote roads and standardizing address signs.
At an unusual square barn built in 1875 and restored in 2004, near the unincorporated town of Fernald, my husband and I and our yellow lab Millie were initially on our own. An open door was the only sign that the red-painted wood barn, with orange asters set against a stone foundation, was on the tour.
Peeking inside, we spotted a long table laden with containers of baked goods that reassured us that yes, this was the right barn and yes, we were welcome to wander — plus eat delicious brownies, chocolate peanut clusters or Scandinavian kringla pastries.
Climbing narrow steps to a hayloft where afternoon light flooded through high windows, and walking along the scuffed wood-plank floor that had the occasional hole, we noted that the tour could be challenging for people with disabilities or parents with restless young children. But it was refreshing to be able to explore with no directions or warnings.
Like a cathedral
At other barns, the owner was on hand to show visitors around. Inside an 1885 red wood barn in Colo (pop. 844), constructed with pegs by Irish pioneers and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the young owner described painstaking efforts to restore the barn using the original wood type, found in Wisconsin. Not farmers, he and his wife work in nearby Ames. Barn restoration is a hobby.
Looking up inside a massive, 65-foot-wide white round barn in State Center (pop. 1,459) felt like being in a lofty cathedral, albeit one with a 12-by-35-foot clay-block silo in the middle, surrounded by 13 dairy cow stanchions, five double horse stalls, two box stalls, two grain rooms, a milk room and tack room. Built in 1919 from a pre-cut kit that arrived by train from Davenport, it was a “general-purpose” barn.
Part of a century farm (i.e. owned by the same family for 100 years), the barn’s experimental theater-in-the-round layout was thought to make more sense spacewise than a traditional barn with long straight corridors, providing more storage and quicker access to various components. “He was a little forward-thinking,” the owner said of her grandfather, the original owner.
Historic items were on display at some barns, including old farm implements and family photo albums. At the last barn we visited, also in State Center, the owner showed us a hand-drawn map of the barn layout, complete with the names of the farm’s draft horses. He also pointed to handprints in the cement floor made by his elders as kids.
Although that barn’s lovely wood cupola was dated 1904, that marks when the barn was moved a little farther back from the road, he told us. The barn was already on the farm when his family bought it in 1893. Its age remains a mystery.
The Iowa Barn Foundation’s Spring Barn Tour is June 22-23 in Dubuque and Clayton counties, about 225 miles southeast of the Twin Cities.
The 19th annual All-State Tour is set for Sept. 28-29, with details coming in late July.
Des Moines-based Betsy Rubiner writes the travel blog TakeBetsyWithYou (betsyrubiner.wordpress.com).