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Books on barns document history, heart

Barn Spotlight: Here is a review of six books that focus on barns.

Jan Corey Arnett

February 28, 2023

10 Slides

Anyone who is a collector can, with a wink, complete this sentence: “You can never have too many …”

For me, that something is barn books. So, when I had the sweet surprise of new books for my expansive collection, I was ecstatic. Four of the books represent heritage barns in four states: Indiana, Maine, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The fifth, on round barns, is national in scope, and a sixth on timber-frame and stone barns is set in the United Kingdom.

Gwendolyn Gutwein (“Heritage Barns of Indiana,” M.T. Publishing Co. Inc., 2020, $45) visited each of her state’s 92 counties, selecting 186 barns to capture in photos and oil paintings. Her work is serene with a spiritual quality, gently leading you page to page, barn to barn.

Gutwein titles each subject with the barn’s family name and includes a brief description, along with both exterior and interior images. The Sigman Family Tobacco Barn in Jennings County, for example, was built circa 1900. Five tiers of tobacco leaves hang on specially made stakes for drying, filling the barn to its peak.

Of her mission to visit every county and document a wide variety of barns, Gutwein says, “Why not paint subject matter that speaks to my heart? I have a love of old barns and am concerned about their demise.”

Her paintings were largely done on location and are available for exhibition. Importantly, she says she wants her work to document these rural treasures and influence others to save them. “Heritage Barns of Indiana” has been honored as a Bicentennial Legacy Project in Indiana. Visit gwengutwein.com. (Hard-bound, full color, 200 pages)

Ohio focus

Robert Kroeger, a retired dentist, set out to document for posterity the barns in his state of Ohio, approaching his project in similar fashion to Gutwein in that he also did paintings of his subject barns (“Historic Barns of Ohio,” History Press, 2021, $24). Kroeger paints in the rugged impasto style, which involves large amounts of paint laid on the canvas where it is mixed and spread, drying in a heavily textured manner.

Like Gutwein, Kroeger was determined to document and preserve images of barns and their stories, visiting, photographing and painting barns in all 88 Ohio counties. His paintings are paired with many pages of stories about the history of an area, a particular barn, and the people who know — or knew — that barn best.

Kroeger writes that a barn he had visited in 2016, when it was still in use on Ohio’s first farmstead, was gone by 2019. “Barns represent the heart of America,” Kroger writes. “… The old ones are bleeding.” (Soft-cover, black and white and color, 206 pages)

“Historic Barns of Ohio” is Kroeger’s first book on barns. His second is “Round Barns of America — 75 Icons of History.” (Acclaim Press, 2022, $35)

Traveling around the U.S., Kroeger settled on 75 barns representing 32 states. Once again, the work is a blending of impasto paintings, history and storytelling. Readers learn the origins of round barns, why they were built as they were, and even something of the builders.

Many names of America’s barn builders have been lost to time, so to be given names, places and personalities is a rare treat. Kroeger has ferreted out fascinating bits of history that make the stories as textured as his paintings. Visit barnart.weebly.com. (Hardbound, full color, 192 pages)

Don Perkins’ book, “The Barns of Maine, Our History, Our Stories,” (History Press, 2012, $22) was released a decade ago, making it even more important now. Time brings change, transition, and when it comes to barns, too often loss, but the documentation is permanent. His book is a rich blend of early history and recent stories, barn owner acknowledgement, black and white and color images.

Calling himself a “barnologist,” Perkins is a carpenter by profession with a special interest in timber framing. This nation’s earliest and most significant barns are generally log or timber-framed structures, which accounts both for their significance for preservation and their extraordinary architecture.

Perkins writes of barns, “We have largely taken them for granted and now race to learn more before heavy snows, fire and development claim more.” He echoes the sentiment of many when he says, “Barns’ stout frames and soaring space naturally evoke permanence and growth, making them country cathedrals.” Visit historypress.net. (Soft-cover, black and white and color, 187 pages)

Spiritual presence

People who know and love barns do feel a spiritual presence or quality when they are inside a barn. My own father spoke of communing with God when he worked in in the barn — cleaning, fixing and tending.

Architects and historians are correct to associate barns with cathedrals because the architecture of early European cathedrals, monasteries, and their tithing barns is the same.

A spirit-filling and free book on European barns, “The Big Barn Book,” can be read or downloaded at greatbarns.org.uk.

Ken Bonham, a retired educator, has visited some 400 barns around the U.K., some dating back to the 1300s. Detailed architectural renderings, photos, historical information, and current condition or use can be savored over 514 pages. Bonham’s 3D, 100-scale models of barns can also be viewed online.

Greg Huber’s book, “The Historic Barns of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Architecture & Preservation, Built 1750-1900,” (Shiffler Publishing Ltd., 2017, $50) approaches the subject of heritage barns from a decidedly technical, academic and precise stance, yet with the same absolute devotion to barns of his peers.

He begins with European barn history, references to the virgin timber of American forests, ethnic and architectural influences, regional differences, construction highlights, and distinctive markings. His descriptions are detailed, for example, “Most individual stone supports are distinctly tapered. The diameters at their tops are generally 15 to 19 inches, and their bases are 36 to 40 inches.”

Huber has written countless articles on architecture and previous books on heritage barns and houses in addition to his consulting services as owner of Past Perspectives and Eastern Barn Consultants. His work has garnered numerous awards.

As Huber begins a chapter on the “mystery marks” on barns that draw curiosity, he writes, “These old buildings are more than mere aggregates of stone and timbers, boards and nails, and metal hinges. I sense a certain consciousness or spirit of the people who conceived and built them.” Visit easternbarns.com. (Hard-bound, full color, 240 pages)

Jeffrey Marshall recently published “Barnstorming in Eastern Pennsylvania and Beyond” (Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, 2022, $30). Marshall, a preservationist, shares photos he has gathered over many years of documenting barns. Pairing photos with information about the barns in them, Marshall goes so far as to note the use of old license plates and can tops to patch knot holes where mice pass through, a common stopgap measure known to every farmer. Visit kutztown.edu. (Hardcover, color, 224 pages)

None of these books professes to be an exhaustive “how-to” when it comes to building, repairing, restoring or adapting a barn. Other volumes address care and keeping. In a chapter, “Preservation,” Huber advises owners to “perform regular maintenance checks, remove objects that hold moisture (in and around), and provide air circulation in good weather.”

I have had the pleasure to call on the counsel of many of these authors. We share a deep affection for heritage barns and are driven by the absolute, critical need to preserve them and their stories. Each of their writing styles is different, but to the barn lover, each has value.

Most authors of highly specific genre will tell you without hesitation that they do what they do for love, not for money, because there is rarely much of that. We do what we do as a calling.

If you love barns, add these authors’ books to your collection. After all, you can never have too many barn books.

Arnett is the author of “American Barns” and co-founder of Barn Believers Community Project Fund. Visit barnbelievers.org. to request a free copy of “Saving Heritage Barns, Care and Caution, Words of Wisdom.” She writes from Battle Creek, Mich. Contact her at jancoreyarnett.com.

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