Ohio Barns Group Holds Preservation Conference

Spring comes to Glen Harper's barn near Springboro
Spring comes to Glen Harper's barn near Springboro

Many historic structures from Ohio’s past are lost every year. They’re barns; symbols of the state’s agricultural heritage. Their enthusiasts will gather March 30th in Mansfield for the 8th annual Ohio Barn Conference. It’s a 3-day meeting to discuss restoration, preservation, barn photography and tax incentives for barn repair. Participants will also tour local barns in the Richland County area.

Many barns across the American heartland are still in use today as they have been for hundreds of years. They house livestock, provide storage for animal feed and they’re dairies. But changes in agriculture and the economy have meant that barns in Ohio have been on the decline. Preservationist Glen Harper is a barn owner who works for the Ohio Historical Society.

“At one time there were thousands but now there are hundreds and we continue to lose them,” Harper says. “In this country they have to have an economic or practical use. And when they don’t have that the chances of them staying on the landscape is reduced. And what we see a lot of times is ‘demolition by neglect.’”

Harper is taking care of his bright red barn, part of a 40-acre farm outside of Springboro between Dayton and Cincinnati. The main section he says predates the Civil War.

The original barn stopped at where this gable end is and then over the years they’ve added on,” Harper says. This little carriage barn right here; this corn crib was added on and that was typical as farmers needed more grain space or storage space.”

Grain and hay were stored upstairs; horse-powered grain threshing may have been done on the main level. A milking parlor still stands on the ground floor.

“This is all stabling space,” he says. “They would have kept small animals in here and then over here are where they would have kept the cows for milking.”

Harper says he’s spent around $12,000 over the years to keep the roof and foundation in good shape and to install a cable to keep his barn from sagging. Today it’s mostly empty except for equipment stored by a tenant who grows organic crops. Harper’s is an English Ground Barn. It’s one of many styles in the state according to Ric Beck, president of the group Friends of Ohio Barns.

“Ohio probably has more diversity of barns of any state in the United States,” Beck says. “In the early 1800s when Ohio was considered the Northwest Territory when people moved west, these different builders from England and Germany kind of looked over each other’s shoulder to see how they built things.”

But those unique hybrids are being lost to urban sprawl; a farmer may destroy the barn to remove it from the tax roles; or it may simply rot to pieces. That’s why the Friends of Ohio Barns organization is helping barn owners find what president Ric Beck calls “adaptive reuse.”

“They can evolve and they can be used for a number of different things because of the open style construction, they lend themselves to many adaptive reuses whether it’s in terms of agricultural or some other commercial or private endeavor,” Beck says.

Some barns have become restaurants or other businesses. Beck, a firefighter for Upper Arlington, bought two barns, took them apart and moved them to his property. One will be a workshop, the second, he hopes, will be his home. Preservationist Glen Harper hopes many more unused and abandoned Ohio barns will have similar futures.

“People like to see them on the landscape,” Harper says. “It’s an American icon, it truly is. But that’s not going to preserve large numbers of barns. They have to continue to be used and if they don’t then ultimately they’ll be lost.”

The 8th annual Ohio Barn Conference begins Friday morning where the day will be spent touring several area barns. On Saturday seminars with artisans and craftspeople focus on barn restoration and preservation. The Barn of the Year award will be presented Saturday night.

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