Historic barns serve as a testament to early settlers who helped Ohio grow and the state’s rich agricultural history. Once they disappear, much of that story will be lost forever.
“Barns represent the heart of America and they’re vanishing left and right,” said Cincinnati-area artist Robert Kroeger. “My mission is to preserve that vanishing landscape.”
Kroeger spent the last several years crisscrossing the state, talking with barn owners about these treasures in an effort to preserve them for future generations. His paintings and essays of special structures from each of Ohio’s 88 counties will be featured in an exhibit that, fittingly, will take place in a historic barn later this year.
Farm Bureau members Marge and Gary Baumberger are owners of two historic barns in Monroe County. The couple represents the fifth generation on their family farm. Marge’s first memories of farming are from the time farming was still accomplished using horsepower, not tractors.
“We’ve seen such tremendous changes in our lifetime,” she said. The Baumbergers want to educate others how the hard work and ingenuity of their relatives and other area settlers grew the local community. The Baumbergers have spent their lives on the farm still tending goats, chickens, and beef cattle and sharing it with their kids and now their grandkids. One of the family’s barns is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; it will represent Monroe County in the exhibition.
Putnam County Farm Bureau member Keith Sommer shares the Baumberger’s love of history. In fact, Sommer has been an expert on historic barns and their construction for over 20 years. His family’s barn, built by Sommer’s great-great-grandfather in 1855, will represent Putnam County in the upcoming exhibition. The Pennsylvania bank barn was built using hand-hewn white oak beams expertly assembled over 150 years ago. Incredibly, the timber frame structure contains two mammoth timbers and owl holes at each end of the structure; these holes allow barn owls to enter the building, providing chemical-free pest control before being green was even a thing. Sommer’s barn is one of five in the community that still have these unique features.
In another historic building on site, Sommer brings history to life sharing timber framing techniques, stone cutting and the craft of the wheelwright. He’s pleased that younger generations are still interested in the construction, salvaging and repurposing of these important structures.
Sandy Shoemaker, a Highland County Farm Bureau member, has grown up around barns.
“Complimenting a farmer’s barn is like telling a woman you like her shoes,” Shoemaker said.
She counts herself “lucky enough to have worked with farmers” throughout her career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where her love of barns and opportunity to get to know farmers converged. She and her husband were fortunate early in their marriage to find property that included both a 1912 farmhouse and a barn from 1885. That beautiful farmstead became an integral part of their lives as they raised their family and tended the land. The barn was one of the first Kroeger painted and will represent Highland County in the exhibition. Shoemaker served as Kroeger’s first barn scout.
“Without her help, I’m not sure that I would have continued,” he said.
An octagonal barn owned by the McClure family was chosen to represent Clark County in the upcoming exhibition.
“Bob (Kroeger) fell in love with it when he saw it,” Bob McClure exclaimed. The barn is “very cool — like a big stone fortress in the center of a field. It’s definitely neat to look at. They don’t build them like that today.”
Although McClure estimates the stone structure to have been built in the early 1900s, this unique barn is in surprisingly good condition for its age. He uses the stately structure to store empty wagons and light agricultural equipment, thinking it unwise to overburden the original wooden floor. He plans to maintain this unique agricultural structure for years to come and appreciates that Kroeger’s painting of this ancient stone marvel will represent Clark County in the exhibit.
“He’s helping bring history back to life by showcasing things from our past that most people have forgotten,” said McClure, a Clark County Farm Bureau member.
For Farm Bureau member Chris Jeffries in Fayette County, the historic corn crib or granary on his property is the type of structure that has long been forgotten by most folks.
“I’ve never seen another like it,” Jeffries said. “It’s definitely an oddity.” His corn crib will represent Fayette County in Kroeger’s upcoming exhibit.
For Jeffries, agriculture is more than just a family business. The choice of situating Seed Genetics Direct LLC on the farmstead was ideal for many reasons.
“As a seed company, we live on the land, not in corporate board rooms,” he said. Another reason Jeffries was interested in the property is the fact that a local farmer whom Jeffries held in high regard once owned it.
“My best memory is of the farm being owned by Carl Krieger, one of the area’s best farmers,” he said. He added that Krieger was a good friend of Cary Bock, who helped Jeffries navigate through his early years in the seed industry. “Krieger was an excellent farmer with a beautiful farmstead, which I drove by several times a week. I never dreamed that one day, I would have the opportunity to own it.”
The sale of his first seed company enabled Jeffries to purchase the farm after Krieger’s passing.
“There are a lot of big old barns in disrepair that owners just can’t afford to repair or maintain,” he noted. “It’s great that Mr. Kroeger is capturing them through his paintings, since they are on borrowed time.”
‘A Tribute to Historic Barns of Ohio’
Historic barns represent Ohio’s deeply rooted tradition in agriculture, and once they disappear, part of that story could be lost forever.
“There are some barns that are falling apart,” Kroeger said. “If I can find out the story behind them, then I’ve captured a piece of that vanishing landscape.”
Kroeger has worked with barn owners to preserve the iconic structures through art and share their stories, showcasing the ingenuity and fine craftsmanship of the early pioneers who helped plant the seeds for future generations of Ohio farmers.
The barn exhibit, “A Tribute to Historic Barns of Ohio”, was originally scheduled for this spring, but it has been moved to fall 2021 at the Muhlhauser Barn in Butler County, another one of Kroeger’s featured historic barns.
See more details about each barn that Kroeger has painted.
Follow the project on Facebook.
Stacy Turner is a freelance writer from Hiram.