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Barn Again in Minnehaha County
By Cara Hetland
September 14, 2000
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Take a tour of the barns of Minnehaha County.
(MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
At the turn of the 20th century, barns were the farm's cathedral. The red or white structures were designed and personalized for each farm family. The massive barns held livestock and tools with a second floor for hay and the occasional barn dance. Towering wooden barns have given way to sleek metal sheds on many farms and now, barns have become the stuff of historic preservation.

IT'S THE HOTTEST HOURS OF MIDDAY on the Schaeffer farm, but the air is cool inside the barn. Built in 1919 with hollow red brick-like tiles, the barn encircles a grain silo. Years ago, it served as a milking parlor. It took three hours for the family to milk more than 100 cows, a chore they repeated twice a day.

Marcella Schaeffer and her husband John own one of two round barns in South Dakota's Minnehaha County. The round barn was already here when seven-year-old John and his family moved to the land. Now their grandchildren keep a handful of sheep in the barn to avoid the heat of the day. The city of Sioux Falls is slowly creeping closer to the Schaeffer farm; rows of large houses are a field away.

Local historian Carol Mashek marvels at the round barn with original roofing and tile. She says it's a tribute to the craftsmen who built it. The round barns were first crafted by the Shakers in the early part of the 1800s in Massachusetts.

Barn Cupola
It normally sits on top of a barn as part of a ventilation system. Some were wooden and also used as bird houses.
"There was a whole movement where people thought the round barn was going to be the barn of the future, because you could stanchion cows completely around the barn and still work in the middle," says Mashek.

However, the difficulty navigating equipment to the centralized silo for grain storage quickly dashed hopes that the round barn would set the industry standard.

Still, the massive barns that did set the Midwestern norm, with rounded rainbow roofs and plenty of room for livestock, became obsolete. There's an effort now, to reconnect communities with what the barn stood for: hard work, socializing and family pride.

The Smithsonian Institution has a touring exhibit called Barn Again! Celebrating an American Icon. Nine communities will host the exhibit over the course of a year. Each community will individualize the exhibit by focusing on a different aspect of farming, prairie life and the barn.

The first stop for the tour was the small town of Freeman, South Dakota. To kick off the event, volunteers held a barn-raising, putting up a barn-like building, only 8 feet by 10, in an afternoon.

Jeanne Jones Manzer, the assistant director for programs with the South Dakota Humanities Council, says state officials have been working for two years to bring the exhibit to South Dakota towns with fewer than 10,000 people. The idea is to help people connect with their past and remember the icon that represents farming.

BARN AGAIN! is a national program to preserve historic farm buildings sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Successful Farming magazine. Visit the Web site to see articles on preserving barns, photo essays and other information about preserving barns.
"Some pieces make us up of who we are today, maybe not use the barn in the same way as it was used in the past but, how do we store things, how do we keep our kids interested," says Manzer.

The Smithsonian encourages education programs. School kids will present oral history reports about the barn, with photo essay and barn drawing contests.

To talk with owners of old barns is to step back into history.

Cecil Berdahl has two treasures on her Minnehaha County farm. The elderly Norwegian woman is proud of the aluminum barn, first constructed in 1915 and remodeled with tin siding in 1947. But her favorite is a dug out - the first building on her land. It's a small two-story building dug into the side of a hill. It was used at one time as a barn and also the family living quarters.

"They had 10 kids born here and they slept up here and there was a hole with steps to go up and down," says Berdahl, while conducting a tour of the tiny barn.

Old curtain rods - nails used as hangers - and even a stove pipe remain to hint at what life was like in this dugout years ago. It's scenes like these that recall a heritage slipping away. Historian Carol Mashek says South Dakotans still have a frontier mentality: tear down the old and build new. Instead, she says, we need to preserve the old and reuse it like new.