Year after year, generation after generation, change blows across the Midlands' farm country, as strong as the prairie wind.
That change reshapes farm operations. It pushes communities in new directions.
Sometimes, that change means the old familiar barn is no longer needed. The cost of renovation and maintenance can be too great. Plus, for many farm operations, times truly have changed.
In great-grandpa's day, it was routine for a farmer to have horses, cows, pigs and chickens and put them all in one place: inside those sturdy wooden walls. No longer. Besides, all those stalls on the barn's first floor don't leave room for heavy equipment. And the new combine is too wide to make it through the barn door anyway.
What once was a central structure that anchored a family's farm operations — homesteaders in the old days sometimes built the barn before they built the house — is often no longer vital. So, the old barn familiar to generations weakens and wobbles. Sometimes, it collapses totally from view.
But not always.
Consider what's happened in Iowa. Each autumn, the Iowa Barn Tour showcases wonderfully restored barns whose renovation in many cases was made possible in part through grants from the Iowa Barn Foundation. That all-volunteer nonprofit, founded in 1997, deserves applause for directly supporting barn renovation, which is rarely a philanthropic focus in most states.
Around 90 barns are featured annually on the Iowa Barn Tour. In the western portion of the state, the tour has included the round-shouldered Finken barn (built in 1927 near Beebeetown) and the sprawling Anstey barn (built in 1920 near Massena). Other highlights have included the beautifully gabled Heflin barn (built in 1901 near Harlan) and the rugged, white-painted Wooster barn (built in 1896 near Manning).
Consider, too, what's happened in communities that have converted barns to new uses, including in Nebraska. In Douglas County, Barbi Hayes donated her family's 1880s-era barn — used for decades as a successful farm/dairy combination — for reuse as an environmental educational center at the Allwine Prairie Preserve operated by the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
In Hastings, the Rural Ranchers 4-H Club and other citizens did a terrific job converting a 1930s-era barn into a community meeting facility at the Prairie Loft Center for Outdoor and Agricultural Learning.
And consider the calls in Shenandoah, Iowa, to preserve one of the area's long-familiar structures: the Lake Nursery Barn, a feature of the local landscape since the early 1870s.
Residents are trying to raise $70,000 for the renovation, supplemented by a generous $30,000 grant this year from the Iowa Barn Foundation.
“It's such a beautiful and authentic barn,” says Jacqueline Schmeal, the foundation's president, “sitting on that verdant hill holding stories of the people who long ago built it and worked in it.”
Looking across the breadth of the Midlands, it's clear that by no means can every barn be saved. But the success stories when they occur ought to be celebrated.
“To me, barns are symbols of the American dream and hard work and integrity,” Schmeal told The World-Herald last year.
Every time a barn is saved, that's a symbol too. A symbol of the present generation's resolve to hold on to our past and honor it.