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Iowa Barn Foundation leads rebuilding effort
Iowa Correspondent

FORT ATKINSON, Iowa — From an Osceola barn that was often frequented by retail mogul J.C. Penney for purchasing cattle, to possessing the oldest U.S. Hereford facility, Iowa is home to some of the nation’s most historic barns.

But with the increasing reach of urban sprawl and exponential growth of corporate farms, the state’s most treasured rural landmarks have been threatened with extinction if they aren’t restored.

“Iowa traditionally was the most important state in agriculture because of the incredibly rich soil,” said Jacqueline Schmeal, president of the Iowa Barn Foundation (IBF) in Fort Atkinson. “It used to be said that 25 percent of the best land in the world was within the borders of Iowa.

“A barn was a necessity in the quest to realize this dream,” she said. “Barns are American’s greatest folk art – art created by untrained artisans. Obviously, saving the barns is saving a heritage – and roots. Imagine Iowa without barns.”

According to the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance (IHPA), there were 6.5 million barns in use in 1920, with Iowa having more than 200,000 farms with at least one barn on every farm. But in the last 80 years, that number has fallen by more than 4.5 million, due to urban sprawl and aging barns that have dilapidated or haven’t been maintained.

In addition, Iowa’s 85,000 farms have an estimated 60,000 barns, with about 10 barns per county per year, or around 1,000 barns per year being lost to suburbia or neglect.

That’s why, for nearly nine years, Iowa has been leading a national grassroots effort to restore the county’s most weathered yet stalwart symbols of agriculture history.

“It is important to preserve these symbols of Iowa’s agricultural legacy,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge. “As a barn owner myself, I appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of these American icons of agriculture.

“They are part of our rich, rural heritage, and it is important that Iowa barns be preserved for generations to come.”

In 1997, the IBF was born out of a group of farmers with Iowa roots who met in Ames over dinner and decided to launch a foundation to raise money and give matching grants to property owners to rehabilitate or restore their barns, corncribs and other rural buildings.

As a result, the IBF launched the Iowa Barn Foundation Magazine, a semi-annual publication that has a circulation of 6,500 in Iowa and beyond, which showcases these historic barns to help raise awareness of the need to restore these rural icons.

“Iowa’s barns were falling,” Schmeal said. “Certainly someone would do something, but they did not. It was tough to launch this (effort). It was an unknown and barns didn’t have much respect. They just got in the way and were being burned, bulldozed and buried at least 1,000 at a time.”

In fact, Tom Lawler, a Parkersburg, Iowa attorney and IBF vice president, said while barn razing isn’t a major concern among Iowa farmers, local governments usually get involved when barns have either deteriorated, pose a possible health or safety hazard, or when economic development mandates a different use for the property.

“Oftentimes when a city or county does take down barns or other agricultural structures, it is because those structures have become a nuisance,” he said.

That’s also why the 3,000-member IBF and the IHPA’s joint campaign to restore barns is especially unique to the U.S. agricultural landscape.

“As far as I know, no other state has an effort like this,” Schmeal said. “Several have given information about barn restoration and one or two may get money from the state for some restoration.

“There are some groups promoting the transforming of barns into other uses,” she said. “The Iowa Barn Foundation wants them historically preserved and used for agriculture on some level.”

To date, the IBF has been awarded 55 grants totaling about $650,000; it has also raised a total of $774,529 in matching grants via contributions and memberships, pumping approximately $1,300,000 into state barn restoration.

Because funding for preservation foundations like the IBF and the IHPA has been tight, so have the requirements for receiving such grants.

To qualify for IBF funding, barns must be 50 years or older, be original structures with no recent additions and no metal siding, unless barns are 50 years or older, Schmeal added.

“We want them used for agriculture – no restaurants or shops,” she said. “And, we ask that the doors and windows be as original as possible.”

In addition, Schmeal said the property owner must fill out an application, along with two submitted bids.

“Our application asks for the history of the barn, when it was built [and] the size,” Schmeal said. “The entire board goes over each application. The barns on property where owners make a living from agriculture get first priority.”

To showcase the state’s award-winning historic barns that had been awarded funding for restoration, the IBF will host its sixth annual All-State Barn Tour, Sept. 23-24, which is the first of its kind in the United States.

This farm news was published in the May 24, 2006 issue of Farm World.