Farming families often built them first and their houses second.
They were not only the most important buildings on the farm, they went on to become one of the most iconic sights in our state.
But as the farming industry continues to change, many of Iowa’s classic barns are falling down and fading into history.
Even on a rainy day wearing faded colors and clouded glass, they stir something reverent in us.
Respect for an expired time. One that so many of us have in common. And maybe therein lies the root of our attraction. In a classic barn, we see more than a striking union of form and function – we see a bit of ourselves.
“You know, it was in my family for 100 years or whatever and I wanted to get it right.”
It’s been 20 years since Craig Pfantz reacquired his great-grandfather’s farm in State Center.
“He kind of went overboard when he built this barn to say the least,” Pfantz laughs.
Today, the four-gabled barn with the ten-by-ten cupola on top is one of the most striking in Iowa, but in 1994, “This whole roof here was completely rotted,” Pfantz points out.
He had a few thousand of his own dollars, but needed far more than that.
Up the road in Story County, “We thought all the neighbors would think we were crazy,” laughs Gary Handsaker of Fernold.
The Handsakers took on a project with $70,000 price tag but only a sentimental value.
“It was something that we could do to keep the history of the farm here,” Handsaker says.
Everything from the foundation to the roof was replaced and the one-of-kind Handsaker barn was 123 years young again.
These restorations are two of the many that were made possible by grants from the Iowa Barn Foundation—a non-profit group that has been working to save classic barns for the last 17 years.
“What we look for are barns where the restoration’s feasible,” says the group’s acting chair, Tom Lawler.
The Barn Foundation meets twice a year to sort through a pile of applications from owners who’d like advice and financial help in restoring their old barns.
“If somebody has a barn that’s in fair condition but needs some roof work,” Lawler says, “some foundation work, some siding work, windows work, generally the total project will be $30,000-$40,000.”
The Foundation often foots about half of that bill. The catch is, the barn needs to continue to serve some agricultural purpose.
Mindy Hamann’s giant dairy barn in Grundy Center doesn’t have any cows, but it does have Tyler.
“He was a wedding gift!” she says. “I’ve had him almost 24 years, now.”
Inside, the Hamann barn is time warp – hand hewn wood as solid as the day the nails were driven into it.
“A barn like this is never going to be built today,” Hamann says.
Unfortunately, it needed to be fixed today, and work began with a gigantic new roof.
“We can’t thank the Iowa Barn Foundation enough because we could not have roofed this structure on our own without the support of the foundation and without their help.”
The Twedt barn in Story County got a shake roof, thanks to the Foundation. Its unique curved shape and innovative windows helped it get selected.
Shape will also be the deciding factor for the Dobbin round barn in Marshall County when it gets restored in the near future. Inside, it’s so intact it seems like time was frozen in the moment and then forever left behind. The Foundation will work hard to preserve this place and to seek out the many others that are still out there before it’s too late.
“You can drive on the gravel roads and you can see them falling,” Hamann laments.
“Now is the hour,” says Iowa Barn Foundation member, Kelly Tobin, “we need to give them help right away.”
Preserving a symbol of what got us here.
“I love what they stand for,” says Iowa Barn Foundation member, Carole Sargent Reichardt, “and the message that they can deliver even in a drive-by moment.”
Letting the work of our ancestors survive to teach our children.
“If you think about it,” says Pfantz, “when you go through life, what you leave behind is really what represents you.”
Allowing them to shelter against a thousand more rainstorms.
“And if we would tear down all these structures,” Pfantz says, “we would lose what that generation had built their entire lifetime.”
Prolonging their pose in the Iowa sunset. That, is a gesture as grand as they are.
Worthy of an Iowa Icon.