State Trust needs photos, data on area’s old barns
Old barns are as much a part of the Litchfield County landscape as trees, deer and undulating expanses of infinitely beautiful farmfields. But according to the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, barns are “becoming an extinct building type” in this state.The reason why should be obvious. In recent years there has been much talk about the slow death of farming and agriculture in this part of the world. Conversations on that topic tend to focus on the human and economic angles.But obviously, when farming goes away, the need for farm buildings goes with it. Many property owners continue to use and even to treasure their old ag buildings. But, as the Trust explains on its barn-dedicated website (www.connecticutbarns.org), there are many forces working to destroy the remaining buildings. Farmers need to make money from their land; once the produce and livestock are gone, the farmland is often sold for development. Entropy also plays a part; old barns, like old houses, are expensive and difficult to maintain. And then there’s the weather. The most recent winter destroyed many historic barns as wet, heavy snow and rip-roaring winds reduced the old ag outbuildings to piles of lumber.For several years now the Connecticut Trust has been surveying the remaining barns in the state, for two reasons. One is to create a database; the other is to make a case to state and federal agencies to help fund preservation of these buildings, which are such a distinctive part of what makes New England unique.Some funding has already come through, from the state Commission on Culture and Tourism. That money helped pay for a massive outreach that began in 2009 and that ends this week. The results can be found online, at the Trust’s barn website. The multi-year effort more than doubled the number of barns in the Trust’s database. When it began, there were photos and records of 2,000 barns across the state. As of this week, there are now 5,500. Most of them were found by volunteers who did “windshield surveys” — that is, they took photos of interesting barns from the road and sent them to the Trust.Even though the official push has ended, the Trust still wants barn-lovers to take photos and send them in.Todd Levine is the Trust’s director of the barn program and he enthusiastically encourages anyone with a camera and a car to get out and document any buildings that might not be on the website yet.There are specific guidelines on how it should be done; the tips can be found online at the barn website.Two of the most important things to know are that it is legal to take photos of any building from a public road (which is why these are called “windshield surveys”), but it is illegal to take photos on someone else’s property without their permission. However, Levine said, it’s always OK to go up and knock on the door and speak to a property owner. “Barn owners almost always love to talk about their barns,” he said.Not all barns are historically significant. But Levine said he and his staff are eager to get all the barns they can into their database, just in case. “The basic criterion is that they should be at least 50 years old,” he said. “But even if a barn isn’t, take a picture and send it in because eventually it is going to be 50 years old.”Take photos from as many sides of a building as you can see from the road, he suggested. If the property owner offers permission to come on his or her land, then the Trust loves to get photos of all four sides (don’t send in more than about five photos, though, or it becomes overwhelming for the staff to process). Do not go inside the barns. Ever. Levine is adamant on this point. “Even when it looks like the wood floor is solid, it’s possible to fall right through,” he said. “We can tell most of a barn’s history by seeing its exterior.If we feel that a closer look is necessary, then our staff can make a site visit.”An oral history of the building is excellent, Levine said, when it’s available. The Trust is also seeking historic photos and stories, especially of barns that no longer exist.“We want to know what we’ve lost,” he said.Starting in July, the Trust will begin to sift through the barns in its database to choose which buildings will go in the State Register of Historic Places.“Those barnowners will the be eligible for tax credits,” he said. “And if the barn is owned by a nonprofit or a municipality, they can be eligible for grants.”The barns on the state register are then eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which offers possibilities for still more funding.The Trust also has grants available for repairs and upkeep on barns. Applications are available online and are due this fall.