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Making hay out of history

By Marjorie Wertz
Sunday, November 20, 2005

Pennsylvania wants to make hay out of its historic barns.
The state House and Senate recently passed a resolution to take inventory of Pennsylvania’s historic barns and to use the list to promote agriculture and tourism.

The inventory, conducted by the state Department of Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, is due November 2006.

“There are 22,000 farms in western Pennsylvania in 33 counties,” said Lu Donnelly, project coordinator for an upcoming exhibit on barns at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. “Many of these farms have more than one barn, yet many of the barns are falling down.

“Pennsylvania is quickly losing its rural heritage. Barns are very important and I’m glad the Legislature is aware of them,” Donnelly said.

The inventory was sparked by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, a legislative research agency of the General Assembly. “Pennsylvania has a rich agricultural heritage and barns have been a mainstay in the state’s agriculture industry,” said Jonathan Johnson, senior policy analyst for the center.

Researchers will start with farms listed with the state’s Century and Bicentennial Farms Program, which recognizes families who have been farming the same land for 100 or 200 years.

“We have over 2,000 farms in the centennial and 205 farms in the bicentennial categories,” said program director Catalina Ruhl. “But whether there are barns on these lands is another thing.”

The Albert and Nancy Lee Shetler farm, located outside of Greensburg, is the only Westmoreland County farm to receive the bicentennial farm award since the program was implemented last year.

The Shetlers’ original log barn burned down and the family built a new one in 1909. It was one of the first barns in the county built with trusses.

The legislators’ resolution did not determine what constitutes a historic barn, Johnson said.

According to criteria set by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation’s Historic Farm Preservation Program, a historic barn must be at least 50 years old, said Jack Miller, director of gift planning.

“The barn should have significant architecture or architectural style,” Miller said.

A major grant from a local foundation helped the organization to preserve five farms throughout Western Pennsylvania with historic buildings and more than 1,300 acres of farmland since the program started in 2000.

“Rural preservation is especially important in Allegheny County,” Miller said. “We’re down to less than 18,000 acres of farmlands. One of the issues that farmers are facing is the escalation of taxes and urban sprawl. They can’t afford to pay the taxes and they end up selling part of their land because farming no longer pays the bills.”

Miller said his role is to show farm owners how planned gifts can be beneficial in saving farmlands.

Liberta and Richard H. McConnell have lived on their Buffalo Township, Butler County farm since 1939. The couple purchased the farm from her parents, Daniel and Pauline Zeloyle.

“In the block foundation of the barn, somebody chiseled 1900 into the block,” said Liberta McConnell. “My dad bought the farm from Oscar Uhl and I think he was the one that founded it. The barn is still in good shape. Some people let their barns go downhill and that just makes me sick. Once the barns are gone, they’re gone and that’s the end of an era.”

The L.B. Roenigk Farm in Buffalo Township, Butler County, also has a 110-year-old barn.

Most of the old barns in Pennsylvania are known as bank barns, said Gary Shepard, director of the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Westmoreland County.

“These historic barns were designed as closed structures. They were very efficient at the time and worked for a small number of animals. They’re beautiful old buildings but in light of modern technology, they don’t fit in,” Shepard said.

Bank barns were built into a mound of earth or an artificially created bank.

“They tend to be poorly ventilated and dark as opposed to what we use today,” Shepard said. “Feed was dropped into the basement of the bank barns for the animals. These barns continue to be used by dairy farmers and they still work but they don’t offer much animal comfort.”

Historic barns were considered near extinction in 1987 when the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Successful Farming magazine launched Barn Again, a national program to preserve historic farm buildings. Barn Again has shown how historic barns can be adapted for new farming uses and ways in which preservation techniques are more cost-effective to tearing down and rebuilding.

Scott Branthoover’s bank barn in West Newton was built around 1904 or 1907 and has been in his family since 1945 when his grandfather purchased the farm. Much of his farm’s infrastructure is built around the barn.

“We’re putting red sheet metal over one exterior side of the barn to preserve the wood. It’s very labor-intensive to keep the wood preserved,” said Branthoover. “We did a lot of replacement beam work downstairs and I put in a cement floor in the upper floor. This barn is still a very functional part of our business.”

One of the most visible farms along Route 30 in Westmoreland County is the Clair Frye farm in Unity Township.

“The house is about 200 years old. I don’t know exactly how old the barn is, but I think it’s well over 100 years old,” said Lois Frye.

She and her husband, the late Clair Frye, purchased the farm in 1954 from Martha Kuhns.

“There was a barn that sat up the road from us and somebody told us that barn had been built during the Battle of Gettysburg,” said Frye, 75. “The rumor was that the workers stopped construction on the barn because they could hear the cannons from the battle. I believe our barn was built around the same time.”

Frye’s son, Wayne, now runs the farm. He said there is an underground cave with a spring that runs down the hill to the barn.

“There used to be a watering trough for travelers along old Route 30,” said Wayne Frye, of the road that runs directly through the farm.

The Carnegie Museum of Art is also harvesting the revived interest in barns.

It will sponsor a special exhibit, “Barns of Western Pennsylvania: Vernacular to Spectacular,” beginning in February.

The state Historical and Museum Commission has been working on farmland preservation issues with the agriculture department for some time, said Jane Crawford, press secretary for the commission.

“This is an interesting and ambitious project. We have to meet with some of our partners to get a sense of what has to be done and how this inventory can be accomplished,” said Crawford. “We’ve already been working on identifying historic farms so this resolution will be a continuation of what we’ve done but at a stepped-up pace.”

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633