Commission in search of old barns

March 19, 2006|By DON AINES


Pennsylvania is home to approximately 58,000 farms, many of them dating to the 19th and even 18th centuries, and the state is asking owners to help them get an accurate count of the most historic structures.

Last fall, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed resolutions urging the state's Department of Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission to develop an inventory of historic barns, according to the office of state Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-89th. Toward that goal, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a think tank serving the legislature, is asking owners of barns built before 1960 to contact the center.

"No one seems to have a good handle on the number of historic barns," said Jonathan Johnson, a senior policy analyst with the center.


The owners of these older barns are being asked to contact the center and later this year to participate in a survey to include information about when they were built, how they are being used, the dimensions and the style of architecture.

"A lot of the older barns are being threatened by development ... and are going the way of the dinosaurs," Johnson said. In some cases the owners might be elderly or lack the resources to keep them in good repair, he said.

Franklin County had 1,418 farms and Fulton County 561, according to the 2002 U.S. Department of Agriculture census of agriculture. Johnson said he did not know how many farms have been lost to development or consolidated since then, but the census showed Franklin County lost 204 farms between 1997 and 2002.

With about 1,400 farms, however, there probably are as many or more barns in the county and Johnson said he would be "very shocked" if hundreds of them did not qualify for the state's head count.

The year 1960 was selected because of a 2002 federal farm bill that called for a national farm inventory, Johnson said. A provision of that bill provides for technical assistance to farmers seeking to restore or preserve barns built before that year, although Congress did not allocate funding for that purpose, he said.

Once the count of historic barns is completed, Johnson said the information could be used to develop a state program to preserve barns.

"It would be a matter of debate," Dianna Heim said when asked about the oldest barn in the county. The author of the 1997 book "Cumberland Valley Barns: Past and Present," said there are structures dating back to the 1700s, but some have been covered with sheet metal or otherwise altered.

Over two centuries, many barns have been lost to fires, modernized farming methods, development or simply collapsed for lack of attention, she said. In some cases, the limestone foundations of barns that were burned or torn down became the foundations for newer farm buildings, she said.

"They were into recycling a long time before the rest of us," Heim said.

"For the most part in Franklin County, it's brick-end barns that are becoming dated," she said. The name pretty well describes the style of architecture, with patterned vents in the brick to allow airflow through the lofts, she said.

Many of these were built during an agricultural boom in the second half of the 19th century when prosperous farmers invested large sums of money in their barns, she said. The county owns a brick-end barn on Franklin Farm Lane dating from the 1870s, but its look was greatly altered when it was rebuilt after a fire in the 1970s.

"The biggest threat to barns is not development," but changes in farming over the decades, Heim said.

"Who would want a half million dollars worth of equipment sitting on a wooden floor that's 150 years old?" she said.

Still, many fine examples of barn architecture can be seen driving along the rural lanes and even along the major roads of the county, Heim and Johnson said.

Bank barns with cantilevered forebays are still a common site, Heim said. The style is Pennsylvania Dutch, but the descendants of the Mennonite and German farmers who built them later migrated across the continent and similar examples can be found as far away as Oregon, Washington and Canada, she said.

Barn owners can mail the information to Center for Rural Pennsylvania, 200 N. Third St., Suite 600, Harrisburg, PA 17101, or by calling 1-717-787-9555. The information can also be e-mailed to

For more information, the center also has a Web site at .

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