Just a little northwest of Milwaukee, a small highway stretches through the town of Auburn, Wisconsin. A few decades ago, when the documentary filmmaker Kelly Rundle was a child, the road was lined with farms that members of his family had owned for generations; barns punctuated the open fields and woodlands. Now, he says, almost all of the barns are gone.
In 1935, 6.8 million farms operated across the United States, most with at least one barn. Now, just around 650,000 barns remain standing. With his wife, Tammy, Rundle filmed a documentary chronicling this sharp decline; The Barn Raisers will premiere at the Putnam Museum in Davenport, Iowa, in January.
“Barns present a shorthand reference to America’s agricultural past,” Rundle says. In making the film, he and Tammy traveled through Kansas, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio, speaking to preservationists, owners, historians, and architects to call attention to the architectural significance of the American barn.
Barns were not built to make a statement: they were necessities, and their construction reflected how waves of immigrants made use of the available resources in the surrounding area, Rundle says. When immigrants came to the Plains states from Europe in the early 1800s, they began to build the now-iconic wooden barns to capitalize on local timber, Rundle says. That same practicality, he adds, informed the decision to paint finished barns red. Farmers needed to protect the wooden beams from the elements, and a russet mixture of skimmed milk, lime, and red iron oxide cost little and lasted for years.
Industry and history linger inside each old farmhouse, says Marlin Ingalls, an architectural historian at the University of Iowa, in the film. “I see barns as old documents,” he adds. But unlike papers and other small artifacts, barns can’t be preserved just by gathering them up and dropping them in a museum—with a few exceptions. In most cases, “the only way you’re going to see barn history is to visit the barn on a site where it’s located,” says Vera Wiltse, a barn preservationist based in Coleman, Michigan, in the documentary.
While nostalgia has stamped the barn into the American landscape, “they’re something that we’ve grown to take for granted as part of the environment that we live in,” Rundle says. “We only mourn their loss when they’re gone.” Barns are attached to a disappearing lifestyle: In the U.S., just 2 percent of families live on farms. Most American farms are family run, but those families control just a fraction of the land. Curbed notes that “the prevalence of factory farms, and the super-sizing of farming equipment, makes it an easy decision to scrap aging wooden structures in favor of larger and cheaper pole sheds or Morton buildings.”
Barns, Rundle says, should not be the collateral damage of the move away from independent, family farming. “There are all kinds of obvious threats to barns—weather, fire, age—but the biggest is not having a purpose,” Rundle says. “It’s a challenge, and it’ll take some creative thinking, but there are people working to preserve barns in various ways.” For the film, the Rundles spoke to a couple in Derby, Kansas, who bought a round barn designed by the noted builder Benton Steele and converted it into an event space to save the property. Charles Bultman, an architect based in Michigan, is restoring a barn in the town of Dexter to house an offshoot of the famous Ann Arbor deli, Zingerman’s. State organizations like Friends of Ohio Barns organize tours and fundraising efforts for preservation, and the nonprofit National Barn Alliance supports more localized efforts and maintains a register of barns available to rent out for weddings and family events.
Though their original purpose may be deteriorating, The Barn Raisers makes the case that the buildings themselves should stand as archives of American history, and an unmistakable symbol of the landscape.