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Who'd Have Thought Barns Would Be Prized Relics?

In the days when America was mostly an agricultural nation, the first thing a farmer built after he bought a new spread was not a farmhouse but a barn. He and his neighbors would raise a sturdy structure in which to shelter his livestock, store grain and protect his wagon.

Early barns reflected the heritage of their builders. Dutch barns, for instance, had gable roofs - and often a cupola for ventilation. Swedes and Norwegians built bank barns with a lower entrance and a long earthen ramp around the side that enabled wagons to drive directly into the upper level around back. Many Czechs and Russians combined their farmhouses and barns into a single structure.

Some farmers, including the nation's first president, George Washington, discovered the advantages of round barns. They are roomier than rectangular ones, need fewer interior supports, and are remarkably resistant to winds - even tornadoes. Wind seems to glace off a round barn rather than hit it full-force.

Farmers weren't much for decorating their barns. Typically, their chief adornment was color - usually red because it was the cheapest pigment. A few farmers added weather vanes, oversized portraits, or Old Country folk art called hex signs. And companies paid farmers to allow them to advertise on their barns for products like chewing tobacco or tourist attractions like caverns many kilometers down the road.

Of course, barn-lovers would argue that many barns themselves are works of art.

As the number of family farms dwindles in the face of competition from corporate agribusinesses and the sprawl of suburbs, thousands of barns have been left to burn down or rot. Pragmatic farmers turned to sturdier, climate-controlled metal sheds that could hold large machinery.

Barns that have survived have become romantic landmarks and nostalgic curiosities. Thousands have been put to non-agricultural uses as historic museums, antique shops, firehouses and bed-and-breakfast inns. Preservationists are pleased that these relics have been rescued. But almost always, something is missing from this happy picture: a cornfield or a pasture.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.