ROCA, Neb. — The wooden truss roof over the Ehlers wonder barn held strong against 87 Nebraska winters.
It's a sad wonder that the 88th winter, one of the mildest on record, brought the roof down.
Don Ehlers, who lives in a farmhouse near the distinctive round barn, never heard a thing when about half the roof caved in Saturday afternoon. But when he stepped outside to check on the storm, he sensed that the skyline had changed before his mind could register it.
"It's kind of sad and disappointing," said Ehlers, who farms land near Roca that has been in his family since 1881.
A century ago, round or octagonal barns were billed as more economical to build and more efficient for livestock, but they never caught on like rectangular barns. So round barns became mostly functional curiosities, or even landmarks.
Now they've nearly vanished from Nebraska.
Even in Iowa, where round barns were more popular, they have become an endangered structure.
So a collapsed roof on a rare, historic barn hits hard for those who strive to keep them standing.
"I think the loss of any barn is tragic," said Jacqueline Andre Schmeal, president of the Iowa Barn Foundation, the only statewide barn preservation group in the nation. "To me, barns are symbols of the American dream and hard work and integrity."
The Nebraska State Historical Society couldn't say for certain Monday how many round barns remain standing in the state. However, research done in 1995, at the time the Ehlers barn was added to the National Register of Historic Places, said the number of round barns could be counted on one hand.
The nomination form listed just five standing "true round" barns, although there were additional multi-sided barns that appear nearly circular. Bob Puschendorf, deputy state historic preservation officer for the society, said he knows of round barns still standing near Wakefield, Red Cloud and Uehling.
"The loss of rural agricultural properties is pronounced," Puschendorf said, including conventional barns, farm houses, churches and rural schools in the mix.
Because nearly all round barns remain in private ownership, it's also difficult to say how many remain standing in Iowa. Schmeal deferred to one well-regarded website run by an enthusiast, which indicated there may be about 125.
That number has fallen from the 170 documented by historian Lowell J. Soike of Ames, Iowa, author of the 1983 book on round barns titled, "Without Right Angles." He said he suspected round barns probably disappear at faster rates than other historic barns.
Pragmatism might be to blame.
Most farmers who own round barns no longer raise the livestock for which they were designed to feed or the relatively modest quantities of grain for which they were designed to store. Plus, the large combines and tractors of modern farming simply won't fit through the doors of most round barns.
The cost of maintaining and modifying them can quickly outweigh their sentimental value, Soike said.
"People talk about it's a nice artifact," he said. "But how much money do you want to put in it?"
Even with Monday's blue sky showing through the jagged tear in the roof, Ehlers said his barn holds powerful memories. Among the barefoot prints stamped in concrete near the main door are those of his father, Glenn Ehlers, and grandfather Harvey Ehlers.
Harvey Ehlers spent two years building the barn, finishing it in 1924. He had a mason set the clay tiles in the foundation and the center grain silo, but he did much of the rest of the work with the help of friends and relatives.
They used a horse-drawn wagon to bring in loads of gravel to make concrete and poured it one wheelbarrow at a time. They nailed the angled roof trusses and the thousands of decking boards with hammers, not compressor guns.
Over the years, the barn sheltered horses and steers, dairy cows and hogs. Almost until the day he died at the age of 89 in 1969, Harvey Ehlers would tell anyone who asked how he built it.
In recent years, his grandson used it to store equipment.
The last two days have weighed heavily on Don Ehlers, heavier than the snow that felled the barn's roof.
"To be perfectly honest, it will be probably torn down," he said. "To rebuild it would be cost-prohibitive."
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