Saturday, April 23, 2011

A barn is a barn, of course...

General definitions of the word “barn” identify it as a large building typically associated with farm-related storage or animal housing found on farm property or what used to be farm property.  I hear “barn” and I think of what I might find inside: large, aged beams prized for construction; old stone foundations and wooden planks for walls; large sliding doors to the hayloft; hay; horses or cows or some sort of farmstead animal; cats; mice; bats and their droppings; cobwebs (perhaps a spider, too); grain feed; tractors; dust…etc.  I grew up on a small farmette in Pennsylvania where my brother and sister and I spent hours shaping hay forts in the barn loft.  We came home each day from school and were instructed to immediately change into our “barn” clothes—those shirts and pants and shoes reserved for romping around the grounds.  Our “good” clothes didn’t stand a chance in the barn: they’d be sullied and ruined in the blink of an eye.  The barn was no place for those who didn’t want to get dirty.

Big old barns dating back a hundred years or so were peppered across the landscape of my childhood: red wooden barns with crumbling paint; brick barns with air vents in the shape of decorative stars; white barns with long sloping roofs and an outcrop of matching silos.  There were small barns, too, and the newer pole building barns made of sheet metal and limited ingenuity, but the latter never captured the imagination and the heart as the others did.  No one I knew ever stopped to gaze at the modern metal sheds the way they did in awe of the historical barns.  No group of people ever proposed to establish a foundation to protect these pole buildings the way people fought to preserve the old barns, and certainly no tours were ever conducted to survey the modern constructions like the tours  the old barns sponsored by historical societies as a way of showcasing Pennsylvania rurality.    

Barns that were no longer in use became preserved historical sites or were converted into some cultural attraction point—a farm market or orchard stand, a family restaurant specializing in pancakes, an artisan’s pottery shop, or an antique warehouse.  These barns were of a different order than barns that still functioned as farm buildings, but they seemed to retain the sense of majesty and timelessness nevertheless.  Perhaps this is an example of me romanticizing my childhood, but I believe it lies more in the fact that these barns had once existed as true barns, or barns that fit the definition I spoke of earlier.  This past Tuesday, standing in the shimmering, freshly-hewn barn at Shawhaven built for use as a pavilion for events on the agri-tourism site,  I could not shake the feeling that the building didn’t really qualify as a barn.  Aside from a smattering of antique scythes and other various pieces of farming tools, there was no evidence of any farming activity taking place within the walls.  The “barn” had specifically been built as a place for people to congregate during public events hosted by the farm—NOT as a storage or animal housing facility. 

Arguably, both the Shawhaven barn and the barn on Rte. 194 to Hanover that houses the Buttercup Farm Market serve the same purpose of linking a modern economic practice to the rural livelihood of agriculture.  Both have obviously been constructed for use besides that of storing hay: the Shawhaven barn has custom-made restrooms while the Buttercup barn has obviously been remodeled inside to accommodate a bakery case and office for the market manager.  Both barns are also well-kept and clean to entice clientele.  So why, then, does the Shawhaven barn feel so alien to me while the Buttercup barn does not?  The Shawhaven feels too constructed, too shaped…too much like a performance.  It is part of the gimmick of “rural farm life” for sale at Shawhaven—a carefully constructed museum for consumption by those otherwise unfamiliar with real rural farm life.  On the other hand, I still remember the days when the Buttercup barn housed an old grey draft horse, two goats, and a few chickens before the owners relocated the animals to develop the barn into a roadside stand for their fresh produce and baked goods.  Several years later, the entire barn was refurbished into the market it is today.  The people who frequent the market are the area locals—perhaps not farmers themselves but certainly rural homesteaders in their own right.  I’m not sure how this justifies the Buttercup barn as a real barn, but there seems to be something in the history of the place that forms an identity beyond that of pure performance and museum.  I appear to be affected by the sense of legitimacy in the building’s construction and the history attached to its previous functions, and this leads me to wonder if this might not ring true other elements of agri-tourism.  We laud the magic of “centennial family farms and orchards” based on their historical significance and maple-syrup making enterprises as remnants of a “traditional way of life.”  Does agri-tourism lose its appeal when the “agri” part is not situated in a romanticized story of what once was?        

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