I just spent some time (too long) on Google trying to find out what to call the box-like structure on the top of this region’s fat little barns. ‘Cupola’ seems to be the term, though these are fairly large and not particularly ornamental. I’ve learned two things: the importance of visual information, and that there are a lot of other people who love barns. In fact, there is an Iowa Barn Foundation. Apparently 1,000 barns disappear from the Iowa landscape every year, and there are efforts to save them, restore them, and move them to new locations. I looked through many photos and saw nothing like the distinctive barns we’ve been seeing here, but I’ll take some photos before we leave.
The struggles of rural communities are probably the same everywhere in many important ways. Making a living, keeping a family together, and raising children with some degree of success occupies most of us, wherever we live. In hard times–and times have been hard for small farmers for a long while–aesthetics don’t merit much attention. (Added to that is the fact that most of the built environment of the United States is remarkable for its ugliness.) The result of economic stress on individuals is often the decay and loss of important aspects of community idenity and cultural history . . . such as barns. I have no idea if Iowa experiences the conflict I’ve seen at home, and read about too, between the local people who are pressed by circumstances and outsiders who tell them how they should preserve their heritage. The barns I think are so beautiful, albeit in need of paint and preservation, may just be a source of irritation to a farmer occupied with utilitarian concerns.
Yesterday, after a memorable lunch at the Machine Shed, we spent several hours wandering at Living History Farms next door. The park was closed when we were here in January 2004, but this time we enjoyed perfect October weather on the Farms’ Harvest Weekend. The tour starts with a model Indian settlement, bark-covered wigwams and a garden of squash and beans. Over the hill is an 1850 log cabin and barn, and as at Williamsburg and Sturbridge in the east, or Hancock Shaker Village in the Berkshires, there were people demonstrating the crafts and building techniques of the period. It was a perfect way to spend time with our son, who happens to love history, and has special meaning for us, too, because my grandparents and great-grandparents farmed in Iowa.