Annual barn tour showcases Iowa’s rural treasures
By JOE SUTTER
In a historic Iowa barn, each nail holds some history.
Iowa’s agricultural history will be on display next weekend at the Iowa Barn Foundation’s All-State Barn Tour, as nearly 100 barns across the state open their doors to visitors.
The tour is self-guided and free to the public. At many locations, the owners will give tours or information about the barn’s history.
Jacqueline Andre Schmeal, president of Iowa Barn Foundation, helped found the group in 1997. She was concerned when she saw Iowa’s barns disappearing, but she assumed some historical foundation would step up to take care of them. When that didn’t happen, she helped get a group together herself.
“In a lot of states where there’s no effort like this, barns are going and it’s very sad,” she said. “When they’re gone they’re gone.”
The foundation now gives grants to property owners to help them restore old rural buildings.
“The barns that have gotten grants, they follow guidelines,” Schmeal said. “There’s no metal siding. They have to be as historically accurate as possible.”
Gladys McBurney got a grant to fix the 120-year-old barn on her family farm south of Humboldt.
McBurney said when she and her husband, Harold, first decided to fix up the barn, the man they hired only did some of the work before declaring bankruptcy, leaving them out for a large sum they’d paid up front.
“Then some friends told us, you need to get in touch with this foundation that’s restoring barns,” she said.
They didn’t pay the whole bill, but the foundation did give some money which allowed the McBurneys to get a team from West Bend to finish the work. They easily found the right kind of siding where the McBurneys had failed before.
“This guy we had first said you couldn’t get the siding anymore, like what was on there. My husband’s health was not good, and I don’t know one board from another,” McBurney said.
The barn was restored around 1983, she said, and was repainted in 2011.
“Harold always said, ‘Don’t let things get so bad,'” McBurney said. “It takes a lot more money to fix it up if it gets so run down.”
Harold McBurney passed away in 2005.
Gladys McBurney, 88, has given the tour nearly every year since the restoration was complete. She grew up working on the farm with her family, so she can tell all the details of how the barn was used. She tells how her mother used a team of horses to lift a sling full of hay into the spacious haymow, back before modern hay balers.
The barn contains an old horse-drawn sleigh that McBurney remembers using and an antique ensilage cutter that was used to fill the barn’s two silos.
“They would cut the corn down before it got real dry. This chopped it up and threw it into the silo,” she said.
She also leads visitors through the horse pen on the lower level of the barn and shows where her family kept about 35 dairy cows in stalls. Harold and Gladys McBurney took over the dairy business from her parents when they retired.
The barn was built by the Lorbeers in 1890. It was then sold to McBurney’s grandfather, who used to herd cattle in the Alps before coming to America.
“I was so glad to get to the State Fair this year, when they made this farm a Century Farm. That means it’s been in the family 100 years,” she said.
Keeping alive the memory of these early settlers is one reason for the tour, Schmeal said.
“When I look at a barn that’s what I see. I think of the person who built it, who came to America trying to get going with a livelihood,” she said. “Often, they lived in the barn first. They were working 90 hours a day doing their animals, their crops, and also building their barns so they could take care of their animals and crops. I don’t know if it was 90 hours, but they worked.
“That’s why it’s so important to preserve these treasures. Think of all the effort that went into these barns. It’s not just the barns, it’s the people who built them.”
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