Self-named barn addict
By DARCY DOUGHERTY MAULSBY
PETERSON – With its bare, dull wood, missing boards and gaping holes in the roof, the decrepit barn west of Peterson would never be a candidate for a calendar photo.
Still, there was something about the lonely barn that compelled Julie Hamilton to shoot the striking photos that would preserve this “River Valley Ghost.”
“I felt a pull – like I needed to take pictures of that barn – and I’m so glad I did,” Hamilton said, “because a month later the barn was torn down.” Hamilton, 43, is a real estate agent, insurance inspector and amateur photographer who sells her artwork online.
The River Valley Ghost was one of many grand old barns that have been erased from the countryside in the past year, Hamilton said, a self-proclaimed “barn addict.”
While she understands why people demolish barns that have fallen into disrepair and no longer serve a useful purpose, it’s still hard for her to see them go.
“Barns become landmarks on the countryside,” she said, “and years of history come down in minutes when a farmstead is torn down. That’s why I try to photograph as many barns as I can.”
No two barns are alike
An Estherville native, Hamilton traces her interest in barns to her childhood, when she played in her uncle’s barn at his farm between Spirit Lake and Superior.
“I should have been a farm girl, because some of my fondest childhood memories are connected with that barn,” Hamilton said, whose uncle, Henry Soat, raised hogs and sheep. “I spent a lot of time building straw forts in the loft of that barn, which was truly the heart of the farm.”
After Hamilton began her career in real estate, her property listings rekindled her interest in barns. She said she was dismayed when every potential buyer for an acreage on Iowa Highway 3 near Pocahontas said they’d tear down the barn.
She has also discovered, however, how a well-maintained barn can enhance a property. “A good barn can easily add $40,000 or more to the selling price of an acreage,” said Hamilton, who has been a real estate agent for seven years and currently works for Hometown Realty in Spencer.
The wide array of barns that were built across the Midwest never fails to impress Hamilton, whose other job as an insurance inspector allows her to photograph barns during her travels across Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota.
“Farmers built so many different types of barns for many different purposes,” she said, “and not all states have as many barns as Iowa.”
“Barns aren’t nearly as prevalent in Nebraska as they are here, for example.”
Hamilton is researching the history of the barn on her acreage near Peterson and wants to restore the building.
Creating works of art
To share her barn images with others, Hamilton enjoys digitally enhancing her photographs to create unique pieces of artwork that she sells through various online sites, including Craigslist and an Etsy store.
Other art companies have showcased her work. The Pacifica Tile Art Studio licensed one of her barn photos to create “Big Red,” a decorative tile mural that the company describes as a “nostalgic rendition of a barn in the heartland that’s perfect for a farmhouse kitchen backsplash idea.”
Hamilton has an eye for capturing emotive images, and this can only come from a place inside, said Jan Corey Arnett, a writer from Battle Creek, Mich., who connected with Hamilton online and has used some of her photography in PowerPoint presentations on barn preservation.
“Julie feels her images before she captures them,” said Arnett, who is writing a book on America’s barns for a publisher in the United Kingdom. “Her work is critically important, because the first step in saving our heritage barns is documenting them in photographs.
“The time she takes to photograph a barn and farmstead today is priceless, because, as her work has shown, tomorrow that same irreplaceable scene may be nothing but shattered boards pushed into a pile.”
While Hamilton is building a customer base photographs, she regards her artwork as a hobby, not a business.
“I call myself an ‘artist with no time,’ and I don’t even consider myself a photographer,” Hamilton said. “I simply want people to see the beauty of barns.”
This desire extends to her three daughters in their late teens and early 20s. “They tease me for always wanting to stop and photograph barns, but I tell them that by the time they have grandchildren, many of these barns will be extinct.”
It’s rewarding for Hamilton, she said, when people thank her for her photography and her artwork.
“For me, the one thing that symbolizes ‘country’ is the barn,” Hamilton said. “I encourage people to save their barns, if they can.
“Iowa’s barns are a treasure, and each of my barn images preserves a memory.”
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