'You can't afford not to fix them. These barns are a piece of history you can't replace.'
John Mitchell slides the barn door open and the morning sunlight fills the room illuminating bales of hay and a farm wagon. Inside, the barn with its newly repaired roof and cabled walls provides welcome refuge from the brisk winter winds. Mitchell points out several simple and highly practical barn design elements - the elevated door for hay bales to enter the haymow, the decorative louvers for ventilation and the mechanical chute of the grain box. He smiles knowing the 105-year-old barn and its legacy will likely live on another century.
Years ago, John and his wife Joanna, both Ohio Farm Bureau members, fell in love with the barn. At the time, it belonged to the neighbors and sat in disrepair. The Mitchells drove by the weathered barn daily for eight years. They watched the slate shingles fall off the roof. They watched the roofline bow more and more. And they watched the deteriorating barn withstand strong winds and strain as its roof was laden with heavy snow.
"Oh, I hope it doesn't come down," Joanna would say.
In the fall of 2000, the couple had the opportunity to place an offer on the barn and the 107-acre property, expanding the couple's grain and cattle farm to 250 acres.
Make it sound
With winter quickly approaching, the Mitchell's first priority was to make the barn structurally sound. The Mitchells turned to Woodford Bros., a noted structural renovator they'd met at the Farm Science Review just before closing on the property. The company photographed the barn and assessed its needs. Three weeks after closing, the company sent a crew for the repair work. First, the crew used hand jacks to raise the barn 10 inches from its foundation. While there was a lot of creaking as the barn was raised, the Woodford Bros. assured the Mitchells not to worry. Next, the crew replaced the rotted sill, cabled the interior walls for support and added joists in the lower level.
Once the barn was structurally sound, the Mitchells proceeded with the next step -- the damaged roof with its 50 holes. They initially planned to replace the slate roof with a less expensive roofing material but when they called Durable Slate of Columbus to determine the company's interest in purchasing the old slate shingles, the contact proposed repairing the slate roof instead of replacing it with an alternative material. The Mitchells were delighted to hear their barn's slate shingles were salvageable. This option would save considerable dollars and maintain the integrity of the original barn. The roof was repaired with salvaged slate to match the existing roof's material and maintain the roof art that spelled out the farm's original name.
Mitchell said the barn renovation continued in steps. In 2004, they contracted George Cain, a local paint contractor, to paint the barn. The Mitchells had admired a deep-red-colored barn and called the owners to request a sample of the paint. They took the sample to a paint store where they had their paint mixed to match.
The couple finished much of the remaining work themselves. They replaced old floor boards and restored the barnyard's stone retaining wall.
Today, the renovated barn serves as storage for hay, feed and smaller farm equipment. The renovation process, no doubt, has further established the Mitchells as champions for barn preservation.
Raised on a farm in western Ohio by his parents who founded the county's historical society, John gained plenty of fond memories from his childhood farm's old tobacco barn and an early appreciation for the role barns play in the state's agricultural heritage.
Mitchell said he especially appreciates the beauty and the strength his barn and others convey. "I wonder what it's seen in our county over the past 100 years," he said of his barn.
Built in 1904 on the Diamond Rock Stock farm owned by Daniel Lucy, the barn provided shelter for livestock and storage for hay, grain and farm equipment. Styled after the popular German bank barns, the three-story barn was built into a hillside for improved weather protection.
The Mitchell's barn is one of many well-worn barns that dot Ohio's countryside. In addition to the popular bank barn, the state has round barns, octagonal barns, transverse frame barns, Dutch barns with double-sloped gambrel roofs, and clusters of arbitrary barn buildings connected together. Ohio also enjoys a long tradition of imaginative barn décor from advertising banners such as Mail Pouch to religious symbols and sports logos. In more recent years, barn art has been revived with the state's bicentennial logo campaign and southern Ohio's quilt square project.
Today, such historic barns are disappearing from Ohio's landscape as the structures deteriorate, farming technologies demand larger storage facilities, urban development expands and salvage companies dismantle barns for their increasingly valuable barnwood and beams.
To some, these aging farm buildings might seem like a financial and laborsome burden to maintain. Others want to preserve these architectural gems but don't know how. Still others are overwhelmed by the scope of a full-barn renovation.
"I've learned it's doable and not as big a deal as you might think," John said. "It's not insurmountable."
While many barns have been elaborately renovated into inns, homes and restaurants, the Mitchells advocate a conservative approach. They suggest tackling the restoration in steps, beginning with the structural essentials like the roof and foundation.
"If nothing else, keep a good roof on the barn and ignore the fading paint," John said. A neglected roof, he said, is the downfall of most barns. "Once the timbers get wet, then the barn's condition goes downhill."
According to preservation groups, older barns can be restored for continued use in agriculture, often at a great savings over the cost of new buildings.
Michael Woodford, vice president of Woodford Bros., said the company's average project runs $12,000 and involves a two- to three-man crew for a week's work, including cabling and repairs to beams, roofs and siding. Woodford explained renovation costs vary according to the condition of the building but typically are 30 percent of the replacement (using modern construction) of the structure. For new post-and-beam construction, the renovation savings multiply.
While some argue the barns are expensive to fix, John said "You can't afford not to fix them. These barns are a piece of history you can't replace."
Teresa Woodard is a freelance writer from Franklin County.
Resources include the National Barn Alliance and The Barn Pages.