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Historic barns can be found across rural Ohio, and Athens County is no exception. Throughout southeast Ohio, these functional structures serve as reminders of the early European-American settlers and the architectural and agricultural practices they brought with them.
“Every barn is like a book full of stories that can be interpreted the more one learns about it, from the people who built it and the materials used in construction to the uses and changes the barn went through in its time,” said Thomas O’Grady, board member and newsletter editor of the Friends of Ohio Barns, a group dedicated to raising awareness for barns in Ohio.
For O’Grady, who also serves as executive director of the Southeast Ohio History Center in Athens, barns are more than just functional farm buildings. He sees them both as small ecosystems in which farm animals, insects, barn owls, rodents and countless other small creatures coexist, and as markers of Ohio’s agricultural industries, which at one point involved 95 percent of the state’s population in some way.
Even the materials used to construct the barns have a history, as the barns’ large wooden beams came from trees native to the region.
According to O’Grady, two types of barns can generally be found in Athens and southeast Ohio. One type, known either as the English three-bay barn or the Yankee barn, was built by settlers from New England. These barns have a side entry and a central threshing floor with a bay on either side used to store hay. When these barns are built into a hillside, as is fairly common in hilly regions like Appalachia, they are known as bank barns.
The other type of historical barn that can be found in Athens County is known as the southern barn and was brought to the area by Virginian settlers. These barns have main entrances built into their gable sides (the sides of the barn where the roof forms a point). They reflect the way land was used in the south and, unlike Yankee barns, are rarely built into hillsides.
One of the biggest challenges facing older barns is the cost of maintenance. Most of the barns are privately owned by people who own and live on the property on which they are built, although a few are owned either publicly or by corporations This means that more often than not, the entire burden of maintenance costs falls on the owners.
“For a century, the condition of the barn and the bounty inside was as good of an indicator of the relative state of the economy as anything else,” O’Grady said. “Today’s barns, many falling on hard times, may be a hidden indicator of the relative condition of the economy as well.”
In addition to the cost, finding ways to maintain the structural integrity of the barns brings its own difficulties.
“Most of these old barns are built with mortise and tenon joinery. They require highly skilled artisans and craftsmen to do the work properly,” O’Grady said. “When the farmers and barn owners age, their children leave the region for greener pastures and the economic margins no longer favor small farms, it gets difficult to justify climbing onto the barn roof to repair missing slate or replace sheets of metal.”
As employment has shifted from agriculture to other industries, the function of barns in Athens has also changed. While in the early 20thcentury, barns were used exclusively for farm-related purposes, many are now being repurposed. Plus, many have been relocated.
“Unfortunately, barns are now being taken apart in Ohio and shipped to other states to become summer homes,” O’Grady said. “They are a heritage resource being harvested for profit, and the greater region loses a part of its cultural wealth.”
Other barns are simply repurposed for non-agricultural uses. Many are used for some sort of storage, but some have been turned into restaurants or event venues. One prime example of a repurposed barn in Athens is the Dairy Barn Arts Center, which years ago was converted into an arts and community center that hosts exhibits and public events, even serving as a polling location for this November’s election.
The Dairy Barn and more than 20 other barns across the county are adorned with large, square paintings of quilt squares. Athens County’s Quilt Barn Tour is aimed at getting people to explore and appreciate the area by stopping at each barn to view a unique quilt design painted by an individual or group in the area.
Some of these quilt squares can be found on well-maintained barns that are still used in one way or another, while others are affixed to the sides of more run-down barns. Both have an allure for visitors, making each Athens barn an important piece of the area’s history and the way the landscape has changed over the years.
“It is a pretty good bet that old barns do not hurt tourism in the least,” O’Grady said. “Neglected barns have a pleasing appeal in their slow and steady decay into the landscape from which they were riven. They are attractive targets for photographers regardless of the condition they are in.”