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Preserving Iowa’s barn history

By Staff | Apr 30, 2010

Rich Tyler, who owns and has worked to restore the Secrest 1883 Octagonal Barn near West Branch, speaks about the value of saving old Iowa barns. Barn preservation is Tyler passion today, but as he said recently to an audience in Webster City, he wasn’t always interested in barns. “I don’t even have a farming background,” said Tyler, a native of Ontario, Canada.



Foir Farm News

Rich Tyler knows it’s impossible to save every old barn in Iowa.

“We can’t save them all,” he said, “but some of them surely can be saved.”

This is aN INTERIOR view. looking up, at the ceiling of the Secrest Barn. Built by Frank Longerbeam, the barn is 80 feet in diameter, and it is 35 feet from the ground to the top of the cupola. At the center bottom, the open staircase to the cupola is visible.

Tyler knows what he’s talking about. In 1993, he bought and began restoration on what is known as the Secrest 1883 Octagonal Barn, near West Branch.

He recently gave a presentation on saving old barns- sponsored by Humanities Iowa, a private nonprofit state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities – at the Kendall Young Library in Webster City.

Iowa barns weren’t one of Tyler’s passions before he bought his barn.

“I don’t have any farming background,” he said. “It’s actually worse than that. I’m not even from Iowa. I’m not even from the United States. I’m from Windsor, Ontario, but I’ve lived here for about 25 years.

“About 12 or 13 years ago, I was foolish enough to buy a very large octagonal barn that was falling down, and I’m not quite sure why I bought it, but I did,” Tyler said. “As a function of this, I learned the history of the barn. I learned something about barns and barn building. I was able to get grant support, and I had lots of volunteers.”

Today, the Secrest Barn is open for public viewing, and Tyler encourages people not to simply drive by, but to get out of their cars and look at a piece of Iowa history.

“So, why should we save barns? What’s the point here? They’re sort of nice to look at and think about and understand,” he said. “But why do we really care?”

Economically, he said, it may be cheaper to preserve and protect existing structures than to build from scratch, and saving a barn doesn’t necessarily mean returning it to its original use.

“A lot of barns can be renovated in very clever ways, not just for farming and storage, but for new businesses. I’ve seen antique shops, factories, storage and shops. There are lot of applications,” Tyler said.

“Historically, one of the best things about Iowa is the countryside – and the farming communities and the barns,” said the University of Iowa professor. “I’ve had visitors from China who stop in the middle of the ride on some gravel road, and say, ‘Wait a second. I want to take a picture of that barn.'”

Tyler said he’ll tell the visitors it’s just a regular barn, but they will respond that they’ve never seen anything like it. So, barns, he said, are a great part of Iowa’s heritage and have tourism potential.

In addition, Tyler said, “Most of us, even me, a city boy, have lots of memories, and I’ve heard wonderful stories from people growing up with barns, what they’ve done.”

He said that in giving talks about barns, he learned that many in his audience once had the job of caring for horses that occupied those barns, and feeding the horses hay that was stored in the barns.

“What,” Tyler said, “if somebody said 10 years from now, 20 years from now, all of the barns are gone. All of the Iowa barns are gone. As we all know, they are disappearing quickly.”

On the other hand, there are entities that can provide technical aid and, sometimes, grants to help with barn preservation. Among those are State Historical Society of Iowa, which offers offers the Historical Resource Development Program.

“They actually have grants you can get to help restore historic buildings, including barns. They also have some good help and a Web page on tax incentives,” he said.

Other options, Tyler said, include the Iowa Barn Foundation – which has some stringent guidelines on allowing people to view the barn afterward, and Preservation Iowa, headquartered in Mt. Pleasant.

Contact Barbara Wallace Hughes at (515) 573-2141 or bwh@messengernews.net.

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