Barns with a past… and a future?


WEST SALEM, Ohio – Barn gables stretch upward, pointing into the Cool-Whip clouds of a baby blue sky. And 150-year-old barns look like scenes from a movie against the backdrop of autumn’s blazing reds and glowing golds.

This is a sight historians and barn lovers across Ashland County want to keep.

Easier said than done.

Preserving decades-old barns is expensive – a cost most people don’t bargain for when they buy a cozy country home and the barn sitting next to it.

So the barn’s paint starts to peel, the roof sags, the foundation shifts. Bulldozers come to the barn or in a few more years, the barn collapses on its own.

And once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

People just aren’t building these beautiful, historical barns anymore, sighs barn enthusiast Katie Wright.

Too expensive, she says. So, instead, the new landscape of agriculture is decorated with cheaper pre-fab, pole buildings.

Because of this, county residents are taking the scenery into their own hands.

Two of these vista vigilantes, Katie and Paul Wright, hit the streets Sunday ready to record each barn in their territory.

Doing a drive-by. “Here, here on the left. We can get that one,” Katie tells her husband, who’s driving.

Paul pulls to the side of County Road 175, puts his van in park, rolls down the window and leans out with his camera. Katie sits in the passenger seat with a checklist and gets to work describing the barn.

Condition? X next to “fair.” Plan shape? Rectangular. Roof shape? Gable. And the list goes on.

Paul pulls back onto the road, rolls up the window and drives for a few tenths of a mile.

This one was easy.

Making friends. “I remember this one,” Paul says, looking at an old white barn on the right. “And I saw someone outside.”

Rather than just flicking on their flashers at the side of the road, the friendly couple turns into the gravel drive and pulls up to the barn.

Sure enough, Robert Bilek is outside.

“Hi, we’re doing a barn survey and trying to take pictures and get information on all the barns in the county,” Paul says after introducing himself.

Bilek seems happy to have company but says he’s sorry he doesn’t know what kind of barn he has.

Katie pulls out a packet of information given to her when she agreed to volunteer. Complete with sketches of roofs and pictures of barn types, Katie tells him he has a gable Yankee barn.

It’s a Sunday afternoon and Bilek has plenty of work to do, and Katie and Paul’s volunteer duties don’t necessarily include talking with the barn owners. Yet, the trio take the time to chat about the barn, the survey project and people they know.

“Thanks for stopping,” Bilek says sincerely before Katie closes the van’s door.

“I guess this is a great way to get to know people in the area, too,” Katie tells her husband as they leave.

And this is how the survey goes.

Creating pride. Approximately 80 volunteers with “Barn Survey Team” signs taped in their back windows scoot up and down both busy and back roads, covering each nook and cranny of the county. Armed with cameras and checklists, they scour the area in an attempt to document the area’s old barns.

It’s just the first phase. Get the pictures and record the barns’ existence, and next time around volunteers will try to get a complete history from the owners.

If the project generates enough attention, maybe barn owners will realize what gems they have, Katie hopes. And if the pride is there, people will think it’s worth it to put money into saving them.

Then maybe the picturesque past will be saved a while longer.

Worth-it repairs. But not all owners need the survey to remind them what rich history they have sitting outside their doors.

Bilek, for example, painted and repaired some of the vertical wood siding, the foundation and the floor – all in an effort to keep his 1918 barn standing proud.

Another couple, Mark and Melanie Johnson, bought their farm last spring from an Amish family and already have plans on how to make sure it stays around.

Built in 1827, before the city and county were even established, the barn in Polk was the farm’s centerpiece.

Although the couple hasn’t owned the barn for a year yet, they immediately dug up its past at the library. All the wood inside the gable bank barn is white oak from the forests that surrounded it.

Particularly amazing to them are the two 14- to 16-inch-thick beams running the length of the barn. Each is from a single tree trunk.

That barn pride Katie talked about is obviously embedded in the Johnsons.

One down, fifty to go. This is just Katie and Paul’s first day out and they completed only one road in their territory.

The couple doesn’t even have a guess as to how many barns they’ll document this month. They just know it will be a lot.

“We’ll just start driving. Then we’ll see,” Paul says.

Both of them were raised here in the area. After spending a childhood running across the land with his friends and working at every farm in sight, Paul knows these fields and farms like the back of his hand.

And Katie, growing up on a farm here, also has a memory to go along with many of the barns along the way.

But too often they point to flat fields, saying that a barn was destroyed by a fire there. Or it collapsed. Or it was torn down. Each loss changing the view. So instead of 150-year-old barns against the backdrop of autumn’s blazing reds and glowing golds, there are just empty fields.

And unless the survey project helps, next autumn there will be even fewer historic barns.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at

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Barn survey details

* The Ashland County Historical Society and volunteers plan to have the surveys completed by Oct. 29.

* Pheasants Forever pledged money to cover costs of film and materials. Other individuals have since donated money.

* Before volunteers were let loose to cover the county, they had to attend classes to learn about barn architecture.

* The project was the brainchild of county prosecutor Robert DeSanto, who got the idea after buying a historic barn of his own.

* For more information call the historical society at 419-289-3111.

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