The Traditional Barn
Gene Logsdon Writes about old barns
Old barns seem to stand on the landscape today mostly for the purpose of being photographed. I wonder sometimes if camera supply businesses will not at some point find it profitable to build replicas of traditional barns along the interstates to boost sales of their products. I think of Don De Lilo’s classic bittersweet question, in his novel, White Noise: “What was the barn like before it was photographed?”
What was it like? Or perhaps: What is it like? The magnificent traditional barns of the agrarian age that peaked about 1900 in America are dwindling away, but many are kept alive as working barns, or as historic sites (or even as restaurants!), and others are still being built. A farmer with a well-managed woodlot or with access to used lumber can build one of these barns, or one modeled on them, cheaper than he can buy from the metal merchants or the lumber yards. Traditional barns are deemed too expensive to build today only because modern society has forsaken common sense in favor of a money prosperity that never quite seems to make it around the proverbial corner. A farmer knocks down a woodlot to grow corn. The corn is only sometimes profitable and often only if the government subsidizes it, whereas the woodlot can continue indefinitely to make lumber for buildings whose worth far exceeds the yearly possibility of a few dollars profit per acre in corn. Animals housed in the barn can then eat the corn and make it profitable too. For practicality and efficiency, there's no experience quite as enlightening as watching an Amish community erect a post and beam, mortised and pegged, three-story barn using lumber from their own woodlots. With concrete foundations in place, I once watched an Amish crew start on a barn in the morning, and, as they had promised me, hay could have been put in it by the afternoon and filled with livestock the next day. If that is old-timeyness, give us more of it.
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