Wisconsin’s Vanishing Barns

barnBY Lori Palmeri

A nostalgic pastime this fall might be a road trip along Wisconsin’s rustic highways. Punctuating the pastoral skyline, iconic Wisconsin gambrel roofs on red and white barns, beacons of the distant past, set the stage for picturesque Wisconsin rurality. These barns illustrate a cultural heritage of agriculture in the state, symbolizing dedication and hard work of farmers of the past. From early wheat crops transitioning to profuse dairy production, many of these barns have vanished from the landscape, while some still stand tall and proud on their owner’s property.

Author, Jerry Apps, “Barns of Wisconsin” says, “We have far fewer barns in the state than we did twenty years ago.” He should know as he was part of a core group to promote preservation of the historic structures. His passion is tracing the ethnic heritage and agricultural timeline through study and writing about barns in Wisconsin.

While Wisconsin barns may be vanishing from our view, contemporary building of luxury rustic residential and commercial design, allow parts of these rural relics to enter into the current urban aesthetic. Through salvage reclamation and reuse, we see the demand for these solid timbers and elements incorporated into our present. The demand is growing both in and out of Wisconsin, as the barns timbers and innards are distributed across the globe for various uses. Some barns have been preserved and hang on through adaptive reuse in the currently popular venue options for weddings, parties and retreats, not to mention storage for big Wisconsin winter toys like snowmobiles, and other non-agricultural acquisitions, while others have been converted to hobby farmettes.

In worst case scenarios, the barns are beyond repair and become a burden on owners who need to pay taxes or otherwise are unable to do the repairs. Wisconsin winters, water and ice are the barns’ biggest enemy as the 100 year plus roofs and foundations succumb to the elements. Without the livestock or hay use, the beams can become brittle and dry according to Stan Goodwin of Wisconsin Barn, Beam and Board in western Wisconsin. They reclaim, restore and redistribute barn and factories wood remnants. They also do restoration work.
The demand for reclaimed and reuse of Wisconsin timber is nothing new. In the early lumber industry, boats and barges were made from the wood and floated down the Mississippi to later become furniture and other structures.

Fast forward to the 1980’s, California began requiring a percentage of new building to incorporate reclaimed barn and other wood, which kicked off parts of Wisconsin historic structures’ migration across the country.

While Wisconsin’s barns started vanishing, a program for barn preservation emerged. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the University of Wisconsin Extension partnered with the Wisconsin Historical Society to connect farm owners with resources to preserve and maintain these culturally significant structures. Workshops on roofs and foundations were offered and state tax credits, coupled with federal tax credits were encouraged as property owners decided whether to tear the barn down or resurrect. Struggling with substantial costs to save the barn, weighed against the economic or sentimental value, tough decisions are made at kitchen table discussions. These tax credit programs require criteria for eligibility for Historic Registries and not all make it through the application process. Even if a structure is not historically significant, those built prior to 1936 are still eligible for a 10% federal tax credit on repairs.

Efforts statewide at preservation have helped to retain some of the significant structures, but the business of reclamation and salvage have kept pace if not surpassed preservation according to some entrepreneurial efforts.

Chuck Law, UW Extension Government Office, disagrees, pointing to a new trend, what he calls “barn architecture.”

Epic Corp Development, a large Health Records Software company recently built a corporate campus outside of Madison, in the Verona area, with a focus on barn architecture. The structures are all themed. Of note, one in particular has a dairy barn theme. Chuck also says they see a trend replicating the barn architecture on contemporary buildings and in luxury homes. He says, examples abound statewide of interest in the older structures, with development projects all over the state. So, while the old dilapidated barns may be fewer on the landscape, they emerge reborn in various development iterations.

He believes that the barn preservation interest has grown statewide in recent years and the Barn Preservation Program’s success of bringing people and resources together has contributed to that. There are discussions taking place about offering an annual conference as a supplement to earlier years’ mini workshops on such maintenance and restoration efforts.

Jerry Apps believes interest has increased. In an documentary for Wisconsin Public Television program, “Wisconsin Barns: Stories in Wood and Stone” he said, “…interest seems to be increasing. Why? The reasons are several. I think many people, urban people, are searching for something. And when you live in the Midwest it is hard to deny that all of us are within two or three generations of living on the land. And there’s something about the experience of living on the land that people are coming back to. They want to rediscover it. They want to visit it, and they want to find out what it was like having a barn on your property, a working barn with cattle in it? What did that smell like, and what did that feel like when you went into a barn with the wind was blowing around the corners and rustling under the eaves, when the pigeons were cooing up on the hayfork track? What was that like?” 

Wisconsin’s barn preservation program and other efforts to save the rustic barns must be having some affect, even if it is more of an agri-tourism trend.

Supporting that, Jo DeRose of the Wisconsin Historical Society says that most owners that take advantage of the state tax credit, are non-farming and more recreational. They do not have to be listed on historic places, but have to be eligible in order to qualify for the credits. The struggle is getting the awareness of the program out there for people to take advantage.

Non qualifying farms/barns structures can still take advantage if built prior to the 1936 10% tax fed credit by self-certifying. Jen Davel, also of Wisconsin Historical Society was asked how many barn structures are listed as taking advantage state tax credits. Her response is that the database currently does not identify specifics, but a rough estimate based on applications processed, are maybe 6 out of 300 applications are farmstead. Another handful are applications that are not eligible because of identity and integrity as not enough of the original structures remain. She also says, there are revisions of the state database which may be able to identify actual numbers of farmsteads.

More information on the Wisconsin Barn Preservation can be found on the so-named Facebook page or website.

As with many of the budget cuts in recent years, the Historical Society also has gone lean, and could definitely use volunteers to help get the word out on this and other programs to those who wax nostalgic on the subject.

On the private side of these vanishing icons, opportunity for repurposing and meeting the recent decade’s demand for reclaimed barn wood has emerged a plethora of companies offering the services. There are over 47 companies registered as some form of wood reclamation or salvage for Wisconsin, including Habitat for Humanity’s Restore.

Stan Goodwin, of Wisconsin Barn, Beam and Board has been at it for six years. While mostly salvage, reclaim, and redistribution, they offer quality restoration and repair for preservation enthusiasts. He said the biggest threat are the foundation’s buckle, without heat or hay, dry rot sets in from lack of use. He estimates the cost to repair a roof from $10,000 to $15,000 and restoration projects can range into the tens of thousands. “Roofs are easy to fix,” Goodwin said “but foundations aren’t.”

Ken DeMien, of Glacier Ridge Organics, owns an example of rebuilding a barn for adaptive reuse. Tearing the barn down was considered, but then as WI BBB came to assess, they were encouraged to rebuild. It now serves as a general store of sorts for Tim’s Antiques and Collectibles. The cost decision comparison was approximately $5,000 to tear down or $15,000 to restore. Ken and his wife decided to rebuild and have not regretted it. They also have used reclaimed wood from WI BBB to build an inspirational bunkhouse which, as of next spring will offer a farm experience retreat to the urban agri-curious. And they’ve added solar and rain harvesting to sustainably enhance the property and farm.

As for reclaimed barn wood, Stan says most demand is generated from commercial and residential building in California, Texas, Colorado and the Dakota’s, but they’re seeing more Midwest customers designing high-end structures reusing the timbers, and other elements from barns and factories.

While barns disappear, so to may our culture of Wisconsin’s agri-heritage.

Still using their barn for agricultural purposes, Olden Produce owners, Tracy and Richard Vinz of Ripon, say they struggle to keep the barn in good repair for storage of produce for their Community Supported Agriculture. Financial considerations for repair and upkeep have them getting creative with events like “Breakfast on the Farm,” to help supplement operations.

Other private barn owners keep them just because they love them, and enjoy the space and experience.

Kelly and Paul O’Brien of Fond du Lac have preserved their barn. Kelly opens the barn for special craft and collectible sales a few times a year. It serves primarily as storage for primitive and up-cycled furniture and other near-urban, but still rural experiences. On November 8, she will host the “Junket of Joy,” which features a bus trip from Vintique (Neenah) and Ye Old Goat (Appleton) to the barn for a day of collecting treasures.

A former Wisconsin resident said, “When I returned after twenty years, I was saddened to see so few barns left, but overjoyed at the few preserved and still majestic.”

As Jerry Apps put it, “When we tear down a barn, we lose a piece of history.”

Know your Wisconsin Barn Styles…
The Bank Barn – 1800’s, typically situated against the bank of a hill, rectangular shape, two levels, one for livestock and the upper level for storage and threshing. If no hill was available, a bank ramp was built of earth. This allowed wagons to load and unload at both levels.

The earliest bank barns featured gabled roofs, while later bank barns were built with gambrel roofs. Bank barns were primarily constructed with their axis parallel to the hill on the south side; this allowed livestock to have a sunny spot to gather in the winter. To take advantage of this protection, the second story is extended over the first; the overhang sheltered animals from harsh weather.

A few octagonal barns still stand, while round barns are still standing in fewer numbers, more around the Viroqua area.

Three bay threshing log barns precede the larger bank barns. Smaller log barns are fewer in number, but were used prior to the dairy barns we see much of today. The log barns were used in wheat production.

Author, Jerry Apps’ latest edition of Barns of Wisconsin has a comprehensive list of preserved barns in the State.

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