Vanishing Barns Signal a Changing Iowa

IOWA FALLS, Iowa — One by one, the old-fashioned barns that speckle this landscape are vanishing. Some are demolished to make way for new cornfields. Others, weak with years, simply crumple.

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This is the fifth in a series of articles that revisit states and landmarks in the American Guide Series of books, which was produced during the Depression by the Federal Writers Project and has become part of the canon of American travel writing.

Previous Articles in the Series

Rod Scott, known as the Barn Guy, said, “We’re trying to ring that alarm bell.”

“She’s gonna go,” Rod Scott said wistfully, gazing up at a stone barn from the 1850s, walls buckling. Down a gravelly road, he sighs at a small barn decorated with a mural, standing but stooping slightly now. A bit farther, holes in the walls of another offer a flash of some forgotten life — a rusted rocking chair, a beer can, an old bed frame. And on one rise sits a ruin, the oak beams of a barn fully collapsed, hay bales still at the ready, crushed beneath.

“We’re trying to ring that alarm bell,” said Mr. Scott, whom people here have come to call the Barn Guy for his insistence on trying to save some of Iowa’s 50,000 remaining barns, icons that turned up again and again in a guidebook to the state’s landmarks that was produced during the Great Depression and has recently been published online.

But the tale of the disappearing barn, a building whose purpose shifted, then faded away, tells a bigger story too, of how farming itself, a staple in this state then and now, has changed markedly since those writers drove through.

What had in the 1930s been an ordinary farm here — 80 or 160 acres and a few cows and sheep and chickens — is today far bigger and more specialized to pay for air-conditioned, G.P.S.-equipped combines and tractors, so much fuel and the now-skyrocketing price of farmland.

Competition for land — to rent or buy — has grown cutthroat and overwhelming, a matter of networking and schmoozing (at church, at the local coffee shop, while selling seed) worthy of the corporate boardroom. (Some here tell of people who call the widows of farmers who have died days or hours earlier, hoping to secure land.)

All of that has left some of Iowa’s youngest, newest farmers doubtful that one could make a start in farming anymore without roots and connections and land dating back, say, to the W.P.A. era.

Back then, the state boasted more than 200,000 barns, Mr. Scott said, splashes of color, often red in Iowa’s otherwise endless, mesmerizing rows of green. The Works Progress Administration writers told of barn dances. They noted lightning rods that had come to top barn after barn.

After the writers moved on, machines, more and more, took the place of handwork and workhorses, and these farm implements grew ever bigger, more powerful, more expensive. Farms, in turn, ballooned in acreage. They shrank drastically in number. So farmhouses, schools, farming towns, even Mr. Scott’s beloved barns emptied, making way in some cases for the long, low, plain buildings used in modern large-scale livestock operations.

That period, as described in the guide, was steeped in a sense of community, an innocent warmth: county fair days, band concert nights, when farm families rushed through chores to gather for music, and threshing runs, when neighbor farmers helped one another with the harvest (before combines made that simpler, solitary work) and their wives gathered to prepare mountainous feasts of meat, potatoes, pie.

“We just don’t neighbor like we used to,” said Donald Wedeking, 81, of Nemaha (A “Mighty Small Town,” as its sign somewhat ambiguously promises), who grows 830 acres of corn and soybeans with his son, far more than his family once did.

He was one of many near and along U.S. 20 through western Iowa, where the guide’s writers wandered, who seemed to long for elements of the past.

“Now it’s kind of dog eat dog,” said LaDon Grotjohn, 63, a farmer in Schaller.

“It was a good way,” said Wendell Body, 76, of Sac City, the county seat for Sac County, an agricultural community where more than 17,600 people lived in the 1930s, but where fewer than 11,000 people live now. Downtown Sac City, as it once was, is sitting in a basement.

Tucked away in the Sac City Museum, displays of everything the downtown once was have been lovingly preserved. There sits the clothing store that recently shut down, its remaining inventory now an exhibit. Here is a reminiscence of the Sac theater where packed matinees once played and the old funeral parlor, a bin of makeup still on hand.

“I suppose you just want to reconstruct your old downtown to bring back memories of how downtown used to be,” said Wilma Fort, who grew up here and spends three days a week, without pay, tending to the museum.

Vanishing Barns Signal a Changing Iowa

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