CHENOA, Ill. — For years Pat Huth came home from vacation with photos she’d taken of barns she admired on her journeys, but she never thought to take any of the ones around her central Illinois home.
“I never realized how pretty the barns are right here around us,” Huth said recently as she drove up a lane toward a 1920s barn.
Huth realized something else about barns in her home state.
“They are a dying breed,” she said.
That’s why Huth has joined others in Illinois and elsewhere to promote the restoration and preservation of these onetime hubs of farm activity.
Barn preservationists say the iconic symbol of agriculture in the heartland is disappearing at an astounding rate. They estimate that as few as 10 percent of the barns Illinois had in the 1920s are standing.
The once-essential buildings are crumbling to the pressures of time, weather, modern farming and the expense of keeping them up. Although small, grass-roots organizations are trying to make a difference, they say they need more support within the state to help keep these barns around. They point to Iowa, where grants and state tax credits help the preservation movement.
Huth and Susie Sears, members of a county barn-keepers group, recently scouted out barns for their group’s recent ninth annual Barn Tour, For $20 a carload, folks are given a map that guides them down country roads to nine vintage barns.
Fees support efforts to promote restoration, preservation and re-purposing of barns.
A recent tour in DeKalb County drew more 300 people, who visited seven barns. Feedback was so positive that the event is already on next year’s calendar.
Preservationists say keeping barns standing and in good shape is important to maintaining Illinois’ cultural history. Different styles of barns, they note, tell the stories of those who settled the state.
But farmers these days struggle with putting the structures to good use. Modern equipment often doesn’t fit in the old barns, and fewer farmers have livestock and feed requiring a barn’s shelter.
Carlos Bahler restored the barn his parents bought in 1953 near Chenoa, north of the state capital of Springfield, that for many years housed beef cattle and dairy cows.
“Now it’s just a home for barn cats and barn swallows,” said Bahler, climbing newly built steps to the loft where he and his wife have hosted parties.
Ron Ropp lives in a barn built by his great-grandfather in 1874 near Normal. Ropp, who started the Barn Keepers group, marvels at barns and those who built them without architectural plans or modern equipment.
“It is incredible to see the size and the architecture, and to think how in the world did they put these things together with just teams of horses and willing neighbors and friends,” he said.
After comparing aerial photos taken in McLean County in 1955 to ones shot in 2000, Ropp found that barns dropped in number from 4,859 to 1,229. “And I think we’ve lost 100-150 since then,” he said.
It’s not just the buildings but the stories behind them that need to be preserved, Ropp said.
“My great-great-grandfather broke the prairie near my house with a team of oxen,” he said. “Those are the stories of farms.”
Ropp concedes it is “very expensive to take care of an old barn.”
His son, Jon Ropp, who repairs and converts barns, said the cost starts at $30,000 to $40,000 to put a roof and siding on a conventional barn unless you are doing the labor.
Josie and Paul Hopkins of Maple Park, Ill., are familiar with the preservation process. Their 1839 wood-peg barn was on the DeKalb County tour.
Home of Josie’s Antiques, the barn is an example of re-purposing historic structures, but the Hopkinses say it didn’t happen easily or overnight.
“It’s been endless work, physical pain and expense, but we love it,” Josie Hopkins said. “It’s a piece of history, an amazing structure, and it would be disastrous to not save it.”
Environmental and historical consultant Nancy Schumm of Lake Barrington became passionate about saving barns while photographing them in Lake County, Ill.
Schumm says there were 237,601 farms in Illinois in 1925, and she assumes each had at least one barn. In 2007, just 25,767 farmers in Illinois replied to a state census question indicating they had a barn built prior to 1960.
“Considering that they were once the most important architectural structure in the Midwest, this is disturbing,” Schumm said.
One concern in Illinois is that farmers who spend money to restore their barns find that it increases their property taxes, Ron Ropp said.
“We’ve tried to talk to legislators,” he said. “We’re not going to get anything off the tax rolls for ag (with) as much legislative power as they have in Chicago.”
Jean Follett, co-chair of the Illinois Barn Alliance, a coalition of advocates for rural historic resources, said the efforts of barn-saver groups in Illinois is admirable, but they could use help.
Although some county farm bureaus have been involved in the process, more support at the state and county level as well as from the state farm bureau is needed, she said.
“For a state our size, [what’s being done] is pretty pitiful,” said Follett, of Hinsdale, a Chicago western suburb.
Chris Magnuson, an official with the Illinois Farm Bureau in Bloomington, said his group supports barn-saving efforts among county farm bureaus, but it is not a cause the statewide agency is involved in directly. “There are only so many resources and there are many needs to focus on,” he said.
Across the Mississippi River, Jacqueline Schmeal, president of the volunteer-run Iowa Barn Foundation, says she believes her group stands alone among others in the U.S. in its approach toward preservation.
Since 1997 the foundation has given 119 matching grants totaling more than $1 million to Iowans rehabbing barns. Funding comes from donations by individuals, corporations and other foundations. Some of the barns will be on the foundation’s All-State Iowa Barns Tour Sept. 27-28.
Barns in Iowa built before 1937 and those listed in or considered for the National Register of Historical Places are eligible for a state tax credit. And barns built before 1937 are eligible for a property tax exemption when they are restored, the foundation said.
Some federal help is available. A federal income tax program allows a credit equaling up to 20 percent of the amount spent rehabbing barns listed on or eligible for the national register, according to the nonprofit National Barn Alliance.