June 10, 2005
Bemidji, Minn. — Author Will Weaver and photographer Doug Ohman have been traveling the state promoting their new book, "Barns of Minnesota." Weaver was recently in his home town of Bemidji, where nostalgic talk of old barns brought some people to tears. One woman bought the book for her dad, who is a barn-lover.
"We have a great old barn down in Yellow Medicine County that we just restored," she told Weaver, "so we appreciated hearing some of your stories."
Stories of barn restorations are rare. A few barns have been transformed into music studios, boat storage sheds or country taverns. Some barns still stand tall and shelter cows or horses as they did a hundred years ago. But most are vacant, dilapidated and slowly falling to the ground.
Weaver knows barns from the inside out. He grew up on a farm in northern Minnesota. His farm-based short story collection, "A Gravestone Made of Wheat," won a Minnesota Book Award.
Speaking outside his home on the Mississippi River east of Bemidji, Weaver says it was the idea of an editor at the Minnesota Historical Society to do a book about barns before they all fall down.
"They are landmarks, they are icons, they are metaphors, they are symbols," said Weaver. "There's so much meaning packed into those old barns, and barns whose day has passed. They're now as obsolete as the steamship, as the coal fired locomotive."
"Barns of Minnesota" is the first book in a new series called Minnesota Byways. Over time, the books will pay tribute to some of the historic buildings across Minnesota -- buildings many have come to take for granted. The series pairs Doug Ohman's photographs with narratives from some of the best writers in the state.
Weaver says the barn book is something of a hybrid. By appearances, it's a coffee table book. But it's also a small novel. Weaver says the combination is getting an incredible response.
"As they say, 'scratch a Minnesotan and the farm is just underneath,'" said Weaver. "I've gotten some rather weepy, sentimental calls of people remembering their grandfather's barn or being on the farm, and this is the book that brings back those kind of memories for Minnesotans. It's capturing a rural lifestyle that I think is pretty much gone. So yes, maybe it's a little sentimental, but certainly it's a wonderful conversation piece as well."
In the book's introduction, Weaver compares old barns to gravestones. "We admire their design, their strength in the face of wind and rain and time," he writes, "but we're left to wonder about the people whose lives they represent."
It was Weaver's job to add people back to those old, abandoned barns. He created the story of Emmet and Clara Anderson, who move from Iowa to northern Minnesota in the 1920s. Weaver's story follows the Andersons through the end of the 20th century as they live their lives in the shadow of the barn. Along the way, Weaver gives character to the barn itself, from its raising, through its heyday full of cows and life, until finally, its collapse.
An early section of the book shows how important the barn is to Emmet:
"Emmet has dimensions for a new barn in his head and on his well-worn, meticulous drawings that he brought from Iowa. This will be a tall, dairy barn, like those in southern Minnesota they saw from the train. He has plans, and by the second spring enough of his pine cut, milled, dried and ready. But Clara says, 'I thought we would build the house first.' Round with their third child, a summer birth, she has been silent for days. 'You said a couple of years. That's what you said -- a couple of years.' And suddenly she cries with abandon. Emmet is caught off guard. He cannot understand this. He has a plan. It's all working. But now this, with Clara. He says to her, 'A barn will build a house sooner than a house will build a barn.' He should go to her, take her in his arms again but does not. He fears he will weaken and put off building his barn. 'Back home at least we lived in a decent house,' Clara says. 'We will soon,' Emmet answers. 'I promise. But first the barn.'"
Mixed in with Weaver's prose are 85 color photos of real-life barns in 36 Minnesota counties. Photographer Doug Ohman of New Hope says some of those barns have fallen down since he took the pictures. Ohman says barns offer a glimpse of a by-gone era and the people who lived it.
"They put their heart and soul, sweat and blood into these buildings," said Ohman. "And to think after 100 years, generations move on and we let them go into disrepair and pretty soon they're down. And to think what the farmer would have thought and felt, kind of a sad piece of reality."
The new book is, in part, a eulogy to barns. But Ohman says the book also highlights one of the most urgent preservation issues in the state. Since "Barns of Minnesota" came out last month, Ohman has gotten calls and emails from barn owners wondering how they can save their barns. He says there are several organizations that can help.
"There's one called Friends of Minnesota Barns, a grassroots organization that's doing that just exact thing," Ohman said. "They're helping folks all over Minnesota save their barns. So I think this book is just one of those pieces to help people realize the importance of these rural icons, that they need to be saved."
Ohman has been busy taking pictures for four other books in the Minnesota Byways series. "Churches of Minnesota" will be published this fall, with narrative by Minnesota author Jon Hassler. The other books will feature Minnesota's cabins, schools and courthouses.