The Iowan landscape, as it existed in the 1930s and 40s, was a rich culture of small family farms- diversified with a variety of crops in the fields. Great green expanses of land speckled with proud barn and shed structures punctuated the horizon and created a visual
identity for each family in the area. Today, one after another, these relics are crumbling and vanishing. Back then, as described in a guidebook to the state’s landmarks (US History Publishers, 1938) was a sense of community. Farm families rushed through chores to gather for music. It was a time when neighbor farmers helped one another with the harvest (before combines created simpler and solitary work).
A traditional farm consisting of 80-100 acres with a few cows, sheep, and chickens, has now morphed into a much bigger specialized operation. The overwhelming competition for land with skyrocketing prices has created a cutthroat environment with little hope for any new farmers to make a living without having some prior connection to land. This lends itself to a 1,000 acre landscape of mono-culture farming; paying for air-conditioned, G.P.S. equipped combines (a cross between a transformers toy and John Deere) and their fuel. Along with these massive machines of agriculture, off in the dry haze of crop particulate, one can spot an abandoned structure; skewed to one side as it leans slowly to its final resting place. The remaining ruins of these iconic structures will ultimately be erased completely from the Iowan landscape. Until then, the crumbling barns and shed are pieces of our history, windows into the past, and sculptural relics while reminding us of how traditional farm life once was in the Midwest.
On a positive note, there is a strong force for restoration of these iconic structures. The Iowa Barn Foundation (www.iowabarnfoundation.org) has initiated programs to highlight and preserve barns throughout Iowa. Owners with barns that qualify are eligible for grants to go towards full restoration. Other efforts such as Iowa Barn Savers (www.iowabarnsavers.com) are putting energy into reclaiming materials from the old barns and using members to accent a new construction project. The antique lumber is highly sought after by builders and architects in the area today. In some cases, old barns are even being converted into new houses. If it weren’t for these people who care deeply about the American History of the Midwest, the fate of these structures and their character in the landscape would fade away. Thankfully there is a rising awareness that we need to preserve our past and embrace the beauty of Iowa’s traditional culture and beauty.