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Time in old barn well spent

During a rare patch of mild weather this week, I spent a few hours in my barn. This barn, built about 1827, was the centerpiece of this farm – one of the first in this area south of East Aurora. Long before my arrival in the 1980s, it was probably a cow barn and later housed horses, including some that were part of my family for many years.

For about 15 years we loaded the hay mow with hay in late summer, and I kept chickens in the barn in winter. But we were only pretenders – serious gardeners but not farmers.

During my tenure this barn has not been in use for its original agricultural purposes. Even now when I spend time there I can feel the history and sense the presence of birds and beasts from long ago (as well as quite a few birds and bats today).

I love my barn and have been thinking about other barns in our region.

My reason for time in the barn on this particular day was the almost-final stage of putting away garden props – bird baths, plant supports, little fences, copper-wired glass dishes, solar lights, the bottle tree and a few other treasures. A former horse stall has become the semi-organized storage room for most of these items, and it makes me happy. Most gardeners need storage space.

Barns have other values, even for non-farmers, beyond storage and housing animals. It’s as close as I’ll get to a place for meditation in cold weather. (The garden offers that in other seasons.) I’m not one to sit quietly – the “to do” list much too compelling and interesting. But being in the barn brings memories, stirs thoughts beyond the work of the day, and keeps me honest with myself. Several times in my life, if I needed to think, or had cause for worry or tears, the barn was the place. It still is.

New York State barns

If you are a lifelong city dweller you may not have a strong affinity for barns. Perhaps they are part of the scenery when you drive out to a winery or a farm for apple-picking or leaf-peeping. They are important for several reasons, however, starting with their original reasons for being:

“From the days when Thomas Jefferson envisioned the new republic as a nation dependent on citizen farmers for its stability and its freedom, the family farm has been a vital image in the American consciousness. As the main structures of farms, barns evoke a sense of tradition and security, of closeness to the land and community with the people who built them,” wrote Michael J. Auerwrote in “The Preservation of Historic Barns,” part of the Preservation Briefs, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Barns represent the story of our agricultural heritage. They have economic, historic, symbolic and aesthetic value, although relatively few people feel strongly enough about that to invest in preserving them.

That was not the case for my friend Don Brusehaber. Don is married to my high school best friend Susan, and they live near Anchorage, Alaska. Although their Alaska lives are fulfilling and successful, Don maintains a strong affinity for his Eden farm heritage, including the farming practices, equipment, barns and outbuildings.

So when he saw a classic 30-by-40-foot barn in Orchard Park about to fall down some years ago, he took on the project of dismantling it board by board and shipping it to Alaska to reassemble at their home. A Western New York barn stands proudly near Eagle River – amazing.

That’s a rare story. When I asked him why he did it, Brusehaber said, “I guess it’s my contrary response to the throw-away society we’re in. People don’t repair stuff – they just buy new. This is one barn that didn’t get thrown away.”

Preservationists work through various programs to save historic barns, although none of it is easy. Grant opportunities and tax credits for barn preservation have come and gone over recent decades. The New York State Barn Coalition is a non-profit that promotes appreciation and preservation of old barns. Good resources are Cynthia Falk’s “Barns of New York – Rural Architecture of the Empire State” (Cornell University Press, 2013) and the work of the Hudson River Valley Institute, among others.

If you have access to a barn, or can influence the future of an historic one, advocates stress these points:

• Attempt to preserve the original structure to the extent possible; keep the large doors and small windows.

• Respect and preserve the setting if you can. A barn in the middle of a suburb does not tell its story nearly as well as the barn with outbuildings and at least the remnants of a farm.

• If the barn’s only hope of survival is re-purposing for residential use, do so with sensitivity and awareness; research the time period and materials and replicate as much original definition as possible.

Bats, birds need them

One of the many downsides of barns and outbuildings disappearing, along with the farms, is the scarcity of housing for many creatures: Barn owls and barn swallows for instance – the name speaks for themselves. Pollinators and other beneficial insects not only use decaying trees and fenceposts for rearing their young or for winter protection, they also use the cracks and crevices of wooden structures.

Most of all bats – desperately endangered by white-nose syndrome (a fungus disease, Pseudogymnoascus destructans need housing such as barns, church steeples, and other outbuildings. Bats are immensely important predators of pests; just 100 little brown bats can consume 250,000 mosquitoes and other night-flying insects. With informed handling of the rare intruder, bats can co-habitate with human populations. We need our bats. They need our barns.

America is still a young country. One of our truest architectural forms is the American barn. Support the preservation if and when you can, as I will try to keep mine.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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