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Icons of an agrarian past

A drive down Essex County back roads proves to be the quintessential barn tour

January 10, 2009
By HEATHER SACKETT, For the Enterprise

"We all think that they are very picturesque that way, but we are not trying to preserve ruins, we are trying to keep a sense of utility on the land," said Carl Stearns, board member of the New York State Barn Coalition and a practicing architect.

The mission of his organization is to foster an appreciation for and the preservation of old barns.

"People like to call them icons of the rural past, but we see them as being more than a romantic notion that has come and gone," he said.

Article Photos

This barn in the town of Keene sits in the state-owned field across from the intersection of state Route 73 and Spruce Hill. Keene Town Supervisor William Ferebee called it “one of the most picturesque places in the Adirondacks.”
(Photos for the Enterprise — Heather Sackett)

Stearns owns three barns in the Cazenovia area of New York, all of which he has found a modern use for. They now house a woodworking shop, a pickup truck, maple syrup supplies and a tractor, among other things.

Many old barns are not designed to handle the size and weight of today's modern farm equipment, so their fall-back function often becomes a storage space. The key, Stearns said, is finding diverse yet practical uses for the structures. Most barns have a characteristic wide-open, timber frame construction, making the conversion potential endless.

"It's not long before you discover a lot of people make houses out of them," Stearns said. "Higher real estate values have made converting barns into everything from small assembly spaces to art studios to houses to historic meeting sites a good idea."

The familiar scene of decrepit barns is not unique to the Adirondacks. They can be found throughout the state, New England and even the country. An expert on barns statewide, some of Stearns' favorites in the Adirondack region are several 30-by-40-feet-long threshing barns that can be found in Gabriels, on state Route 86 between Saranac Lake and Paul Smiths. The families that first settled in that region, he said, planted winter wheat and so they needed a place where they could separate the edible part of the grain from the chaff.

"Threshing barns are fascinating because they were the contemporary of the log cabins," he said. "But very rarely do you see a barn built like a log cabin; they were almost always timber frame."

According to the Adirondack History Center Museum in Elizabethtown, the number of farms in Essex County peaked in 1880 at 2,752. A little more than a century later, in 1997, that number had fallen to 197.

"In a way, barns are fairly endangered as a property type, because as people have gone out of farming, the barn itself becomes kind of obsolete," said Steven Engelhart, director of Keeseville-based Adirondack Architectural Heritage. "It presents a big preservation challenge. It's a structure we are losing a lot of."

As far as the architectural significance of the buildings, Engelhart said barns, like any other building type, have gone through an evolution. The English, French and Dutch all had strong ethnic influences on the barn architecture of New York and New England. They range from huge 200-foot-long, three-story, gothic-influenced barns, to smaller, more specialized ones, like threshing barns.

"The architectural history is pretty complicated," Engelhart said.

Although barns are stereotypically red, other common colors in our region are white and grey, and natural-looking weathered wood. Two horse barns that look bran new (on River Road in Lake Placid and Jay Mountain Road in the town of Jay) feature distinctly Adirondack characteristics, with a natural wood finish, twig work and green trim.

The best possible use for these vestiges of our agrarian past, according to Engelhart, is something close to what they were originally designed for: housing animals and crops. A recent resurgence of interest in eating locally grown foods has been a shot in the arm for the local farming tradition, and as a result, barns.

"I don't think (farming) has seen an end," Engelhart said. "What we see is the predominance of two major farming types: dairy and apple growing. But there's an assortment of other things. A lot of this is being encouraged by Adirondack Harvest and farmers' markets. All of this is good news. It means the farm buildings get used and saved."

Although a few local farms may be flourishing, the ubiquitous presence of dilapidated barns on the landscape indicates that subsistence farming is a thing of the past. But the romantic appeal remains.

"They are kind of an everyday reminder that, especially in the Champlain Valley, there's a long and healthy agriculture tradition," Engelhart said. "In terms of making the place attractive, barns are kind of like lighthouses and school houses and fire towers: They give people a warm and fuzzy feeling about the landscape. There are not many people who don't love a barn."


(Editor's note: This article appeared in the print edition of the Enterprise, on the cover of the North Country Living section, on Jan. 3.)



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