The Status of Iowa Barns

The Status of Iowa Barns, IBF Magazine

Ken Starek Talks

The Status of Iowa barns

Ken Starek, Ackley, renowned for his knowledge of barns, is dubbed a barnologist by friends and family. He believes Iowa's best barns are landmarks. One of the most important advocates of barn preservation in Iowa, he authored an article on barns in one of the first issues of the Iowa Barn Foundation magazines. Now 22 years later, he brings us up-to-date on his current barn thoughts.

  “In many cases we will not miss them until they are gone. Then you drive by where one stood and realize something is wrong, missing, of place — never to return.” - KEN STAREK

I grew up on a livestock farm in western Iowa's Crawford County. The farmstead was part of an original 120-acre Chapman farm that included a 28x36 pegged post and beam barn. The sill rested on loose field stone. One quarter of the barn was divided into two double stalls with mangers for draft horses. A corner of the barn featured a small oats bin—fuel for horses and two small pens. Another area featured two larger pens with managers.

There were always active barn swallow nests. Swallows dive bombed barn resident cats when they walked across the yard. Pigeons nested in the cupola and roosted on the hay rail.

The mow door hinged down a system of pulleys allowing for a horse to pull loose hay up and off the rack and into the barn to be dumped into the mow. For its small size, the barn had an elegant cupola with a cross, gable roof, and windows for light and ventilation. The cupola was topped by a pheasant in flight weather vane. A windstorm destroyed the cupolas and damaged the barn's roof which was replaced with steel. We have the beloved vane in the entry of our house.

There is not much I can do about the barn except watch it deteriorate and remember how it was. I would like to climb up into the hay mow one more time. Will it seem as large now as then?

I would like to photograph and measure the pegged beam work. Will it be the same without light streaming through cupola windows that are no longer there? To me, barn building was for a purpose. Beginning in the 1880s, dairy, beef, and draft horses were housed in barns. Originally logs harvested from Minnesota and Wisconsin forests were floated down the Mississippi River and cut into dimension lumber at riverside city sawmills in eastern Iowa. Prior to the 1960s, hog production was not as year-round as today. Daily cleaning, bedding,and storage of manure until crops were harvested became an issue.

Today's total confinement units with pits and ventilation for larger number of hogs have replaced barns. Iowa's beef and dairy operations are the last to use barns fully today. In many cases the owner is of retirement age, and the farm operation is not large enough to support a family. As with swine, there will be a concentration of beef feeding and dairy operations leaving a large number of unused sites and many unused barns.

I was a 1967 high school graduate and feel that was the end of an era of three or four farms per 640 section of ground. According to the USDA, between 1950 and 1980, the number of working farms was reduced by fifty percent. Between 1980 and 2016, the number of barns was reduced by another fifty percent. Today, it is rare to see more than one tractor per section in the field, but the size of the equipment has gone from two and four row planters in the sixties to 12, 16, and 24 today.

Barns in Iowa

It is estimated that Iowa had some 250,000 barns around the 1930s. Many of the farms had more than one barn, as the owner would keep the old barn when they built a new one. It is estimated Iowa loses 1000 barns a year, one for each township in the state. For instance, the year 2018 was devastating for Hardin County's Etna Township. One farm was sold and new owners cleared the site. Another was taken down and burned because it was no longer needed. Finally, nature proved to be too much for a third barn, as given time, the forces of nature will gradually take a neglected barn down.

Barns also disappear when land is cleared, or when there is an electrical malfunction. Lightning and spontaneous combustion of hay also contribute to barns' demise. Winds and tornadoes contribute to doing barns in. The Canfield round hollow clay tile block barn, north of Dunkerton, replaced a barn that had been destroyed by a 1917 tornado. It was taken down by a tornado in 2008. The historic Galloway barn that was on the National Register, was taken by a tornado last year.

When observing a barn I have a mental check list in an attempt to date and understand the uniqueness of the barn.
— The cupola: Original and replaced
— The roof and side shape: (English gable, prairie, gambrel, Gothic arch, round, multi-sided)
— Metal ventilators
— Wind vane
— Lightning rods
— Color: Red, white, faded gray
— Roof style and shape: prairie, English, gambrel, Gothic arch. wood shingle,asphalt clay tile, slate, steel, wood, (log, vertical 1 /1/12 with bat boars, horizontal ship lap)
— Sidewall Masonry: (brick, hollow clay tile block, concrete block, poured concrete; stone: limestone, fieldstone); steel
— Method used to deliver hay to haymow: drive, off by hand, rail and hay fork.
— End lift: various styles of hoods that covered the end of the rail style of mow door--hinged down, split-down to the side, slide up and down
— Type of hay rail
— Type of hay fork
— Bank barn or pent roof barn
— Doors and windows
— Names or dates on the barn that tell when the barn was built and who built or owned it
— Advertising like mail pouch tobacco
— Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs
— Manure system
— Gutter cleaner
— Litter carrier.

I find the interior of barns reveal lots of secrets about the construction of the barn. I am awed to look at pegged, post and beam barn construction and realize it was all done with hand tools. Getting permission to view the inside of a barn has the plus of a conversation with the owner. My questions follow:
— When was the barn build and who built it?
— How many bales would the hay mow hold?
— How many cows or draft horses were kept in the barn?
— When was the last draft horse living there?
— Was corn picked by hand?
— When was the first year of a mechanical pickers?
— Did neighbors help with thrashing and ear corn shelling?.

Barns in Iowa


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