Sunday, February 10, 2002

Restorers push to save wood barns




By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LIBERTY TOWNSHIP — Suburban growth is gobbling up another Southwest Ohio fixture — old barns.

        “They're getting fewer because of sprawl,” said David Gaker, an engineer who lives in Liberty Township who has been actively “rescuing” the icons of rural America. “They're still all over, but some are becoming obsolete to the family farm, some have deteriorated past the economical benefits of fixing them where they stand, and still others are falling apart.

        “Instead of the owners burning them down, they let me remove the barns.”

[photo] David Gaker sits in the middle of the living room of his Liberty Township home. The home was converted from a barn.
(Gary Landers photos)
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        All across Ohio and the nation, there is growing interest in saving barns. Newsletters and books explain how to do it. An Internet magazine, The Barn Journal, offers everything from feature stories on barn preservationists to practical advice for the barn restorer (www.thebarnjournal.org).

        Motivated by recycling or simply a reverence for the solidwood, preservationists such as Mr. Gaker try to remove old barns and find new — or old — uses for them. He takes each one apart, numbers the many pieces and rebuilds the barns elsewhere.

        “I put them back up and they're good for another 100 years,” he said.

        Increasing interest in barns is partly nostalgic, as Southwest Ohio loses its rural roots. Interest has also grown since the Ohio Bicentennial Commission started painting its logo on barns across the state. So far, the commission has painted barns in 71 of 88 counties. Work will resume this spring.

        The commission focused on barns because they represent Ohio's agricultural heritage.

        “But it was a challenge to find barns in good condition with visibility in every county,” said Lee Yoakum, a spokesman for the Bicentennial Commission. “Hamilton County was one of them.”

        A barn that belongs to Bernie Fiedeldey in Colerain Township will be painted with the Ohio Bicentennial's red, white and blue logo in May.

[photo] Side entrance of the David Gaker home. Mr. Gaker moved the barn to the present site from Trenton, Ohio.
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        “We like to think our program has helped. After applying for our program, owners have restored their barns to varying degrees. It's a matter of pride to them,” Mr. Yoakum said.

        Many Tristate area barns were built in the mid- to late 1800s. As the area becomes increasingly suburban, interest grows in preserving some of the agrarian past, said Steve Bartels, a Butler County extension agent.

        “As we get more suburban development, some people see agricultural structures more for their aesthetics,” Mr. Bartels said. “Folks who live in the suburban and urban areas are becoming more interested in saving the structures. All of a sudden, they're historic.”

        He likens many old barns to works of art.

        One excellent example — a 5,000-square-foot white barn with a stone foundation and lightning rods on top — sat near Ohio 4 in Liberty Township since 1893. But as the land was developed, the barn became expendable.

        About a year ago, Mr. Gaker took it apart and moved it to the Barn 'n' Bunk Farm Market on Wayne-Madison Road near Trenton, where the barn is now coated with vinyl and being completed for possible use as a restaurant.

        “When I was growing up near Monroe, I'd pass that barn on Route 4 all the time,” said Tom Theobald, the market's owner. “So when a guy called and asked if I wanted it, I said yes. But we had to take it down in two weeks. I rounded up 11 men and Dave Gaker for the job. The barn meant something to me. I knew people who'd square-danced there.”

        Once, sturdy wood barns dotted the Butler County landscape. But from 1990 to 2000, the county gained more than 41,000 residents, a 14.2 percent increase, and continued to lose barns and other rural icons to subdivisions and shopping centers and major highways.

        The latest focal point of development, Liberty Township, has grown faster than any other township in the Cincinnati area since 1990, according to the 2000 Census. From 1990 to 2000, its population boomed — from 9,249 to 22,819.

        Mr. Bartels said nobody knows how many barns have disappeared (often farms had several barns, and they weren't considered historically important), but their loss can be tied to the decline in the number of family farms.

        Ohio has lost thousands of farms — from 158,000 in 1958 to 80,000 in 1998. Butler County has seen the loss increase as development has rolled over Liberty Township and the old Union (now West Chester) Township. Mr. Bartels said the county had 1,346 farms and 196,417 agricultural acres in 1969. Today, they have slipped to 849 farms and 134,506 acres.

        “The new barns built today are utilitarian — for our use right now,” he said. “Often they're made of metal. That's because our needs are different. It would be too expensive to build the huge wooden structures nowadays, and, besides, they're not needed anymore.”

        But fans of traditional barns have rescued dozens in the last five years.

        “The more people see that barns can be saved, the more it's being done,” Mr. Theobald said. “We have two of them. We catch a lot of flak because from the outside our barns look new when we finish them. But inside, you can still see all the old timbers. We restore them.”

        On Robert Niederman's dairy farm on LeSourdsville-West Chester Road, preservation is the word. His 2,900-square-foot barn, painted white and built with pegs instead of nails, has two uses — church and barn. For 21 years, the family has opened the 126-year-old barn to a local church for an annual Christmas service. But the barn is still used — and appreciated — for agricultural work, Mr. Niederman said.

        Unfortunately, other old barns aren't blessed with such favorable conditions and locations.

        “In the early 1980s, I found a barn in Trenton that was built in 1876,” Mr. Gaker said. “I disassembled it and moved it to Liberty Township and worked part-time on it for five years. Eventually, we moved into it as our home. With old barns, you have to insulate them and heat all that space and cool it, too. So there's a lot involved to use one for a home. It's not easy work.”

        Mr. Gaker, who specializes in timber frame work, estimates he has personally saved 50 barns in 20 years. He has recycled them for various purposes — a community shelter in Beavercreek, an outdoor activities building near Dayton and a renovated barn near Oxford.

        He also moved another huge barn, from Port Union Road to property off Ohio 747, north of Princeton Road.

        Like Mr. Gaker's home, some of the barns are modern inside, with lofts and modern conveniences — yet still rustic.

        “It's fun to live in them,” Mr. Gaker said. “They do make big spaces.”

       



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