Preserving the past


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The barn’s dusty, sweet-smelling hay evoked a sense of nostalgia for Deborah Mulford as she stepped inside the historic Mulford Barn this weekend.

“I remember losing feeling in my fingers and toes playing out here in the worst of winter, but I have so many memories,” the Iowa City resident said and laughed. “I got my dream of owning a horse.”

Big red barns with white windowpanes are icons to the Heartland and symbols of Iowa’s agricultural heritage. But with advancements in technology and growth in agriculture, barns are quickly disappearing from the state’s landscape, making now a critical time to preserve them.

“The world looks to Iowa as a leader in agricultural production, and the barns, corncribs, and chicken houses of yesterday stand as a symbol of Iowa farmer’s productivity,” said Tom Lawler, the Iowa Barn Foundation vice president. “McDonald’s has its arches that symbolize fast, consistent, convenient food. Iowa’s barns symbolize Iowa’s productive, independent, and adaptable farmers.”

The 13th-annual Iowa Barn Foundation All-State Barn Tour took place Sept. 28 and Sunday with 89 barns open for self-guided tours. The tour is designed to raise awareness about preserving barns and teach Iowa’s youth about their importance to Iowa’s agricultural heritage. This was the fifth year the Mulford Barn, 3188 Highway 1 N.E., Iowa City, was open for visits.

Barns were originally built heavy-duty to store hay and house livestock, and met the farmers’ practical needs of small production. For example, a typical cow herd might have been 10 to 15 cows, where today an average herd ranges anywhere from 80 to 100 head.

Steve Swenka, a local cattle farmer, said barns are being repurposed. He now uses his traditional barn for handling and working with cattle and recognizes the importance of preserving it. However, he needed to build a larger facility because of the expanding number of cattle on his farm.

“These open-front cattle sheds have more open space to hold larger groups of cattle and there is a cost advantage in construction,” he said, noting he recently replaced his barn’s roof for $12,000.

“They’re a lot less expensive to build, the construction is a lot simpler and more streamline, they go up faster.”

Today, livestock production primarily requires specially designed industrialized structures, dairy farming has changed from stanchion barns to parlors, and grain is harvested with combines and stored in grain bins, making barns too small and outdated, Lawler said.

Wilford Yoder, the Johnson County Iowa Barn Foundation representative, said barns were once the most integral structure on a farm.

“Everything used to be related to the barn,” he said. “That’s where they milked the cows, kept their livestock, and now new generations often don’t even know what a barn is or what it was used for. I have fond memories playing in the barn and having barn dances.”

Amy Mulford, the Mulford barn’s fourth and current owner and Deborah Mulford’s mom, bought the barn with her husband in 1963 — though its construction dates back to the Civil War, when Henry Felkner built it in the 1840s-1870s. Felkner owned the first saw mill in Johnson County in 1837 on Rapid Creek and used the lumber to build the barn and part of the Old Capitol Building in Iowa City, according to the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs State Historical Society of Iowa.

Several years ago the Mulford Barn became a recognized historical structure when the University of Iowa Archaeology Department was asked to survey the land south of Iowa City for similar landmarks.

The Iowa Barn Foundation — founded in 1997 with the help of Jacqueline Andre Schmeal, the current president — provided a matching grant for the Mulford barn’s foundation renovations. In order to receive a grant, the barn must be restored as closely as possible to its original condition, for example, no metal siding or metal windows. A barn must be maintained through the years, and it cannot be torn down. Every barn on the tour this year received a grant.

Inside the Mulford barn, the hand-hewn, shaved oak trees support the structure, wood pegs and square nails act like glue, and a wooden hay track show the barn’s age.

“Barns are important to Iowa as a tourist attraction and also because they do hold for many Iowans or former Iowans memories of growing up on a farm or visiting relatives and friends on the farm,” Lawler said. “The barns took the place of the movie theatre or city park as a place to play and imagine when on the farm.”

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