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Monday, August 15, 2022

Our Barns

The classic American barn — few images appeal so strongly to our collective conscious as the big red (or white) barn majestically rising from endless fields of green. When we catch sight of a beautiful barn, the rustic building reminds us of a simpler life. While barns are disappearing, we found many historic structures are being restored for contemporary uses, giving new generations access to this very American architecture form. We navigated the back roads to identify some of the best barns in the greater Evansville area. Come on in! You won’t need your boots.

Charlotte and Gene Warren

George Henry Warren, once a prominent farmer and chairman of the board of Sebree Deposit Bank, purchased 225 acres of Henderson County, Kentucky, farmland and moved his family there in 1927. During the move, his grandson Gene followed a covered wagon all the way from McLean County, ensuring the calves and milk cows safely arrived to the new family farm, known today as Daffodil Farm.

The covered wagon still sits near the old horse and mule barn off of U.S. Highway 60, and that barn is still in the Warren family, now owned by one of George Henry’s great-grandsons, Gene Warren Jr. and his wife Charlotte.

▲ Charlotte and Gene Warren stand with the Tennessee Walking horse Champ. He resides in the barn with two friends, Copper and Patches.

▲ Gene’s family previously raised ponies in the barn, which was built before the 1890s for equipment-pulling horses and mules. Photos by Zach Straw.

“My wife Charlotte is the driving force and inspiration for saving the historic structures on our family farm,” says Gene. “Charlotte and our children are responsible for the property care and for making the farm the joy for our family that it is — a labor of love.”

Gene lived near the barn for his first six years, until his great-grandfather expanded the farmland to 554 acres and Gene’s household moved to a different part of the property.

After that, his family visited often, as Gene’s grandparents lived there for decades. Gene recalls wonderful memories of running around the barn with a brother, two sisters, and 20 ponies.

Today, Charlotte’s three horses take the place of the horses and mules that pulled farm equipment when the barn was built in the 19th century.

Her Tennessee Walking horse and two American Quarter horses live comfortably in a home of about 8,000 square feet, complete with corn crib and hay loft.

“When our grandchildren work with Charlotte’s horses or help bale hay on the farm they are the sixth generation of Warrens to work on this farm over nearly 100 years,” says Gene. “That fact makes this farm really significant for our family.”

Shelli and Butch Hancock

“Tear it down or build a new one.”

That was the advice Butch and Shelli Hancock were given about an old barn resting on a hill in front of their home on six acres they purchased on Petersburg Road. Instead, the couple’s affection for the building would keep it standing.

“It was built in the late 1890s,” says Butch. “The wood is hand-hewn. It’s so hard you can’t drive a nail into it.”

When the couple began to clean up the old structure, Butch says they were able to gather old artifacts from the previous owners including tools and glass jars from the turn of the century. The pieces were saved, and the Hancocks display many of them.

The major push to renovate the barn came from their daughter Haley who wanted to hold her wedding reception at her parents’ property last year. Butch and Shelli hired local contractor Steve Briscoe to assess the structural soundness of the building and to add in a new stairway, windows and doors, and an electrical system. Briscoe hired Steve Dunlap of Evansville to help with woodworking.

▲ Shelli and Butch Hancock’s barn dates back to the 1890s. Though it was in disrepair when they purchased their property, it was structurally sound. So the couple renovated the building, creating a fun place to gather with family and friends. Photos by Jordan Barclay.

“We took an eyesore and made it fun,” says Shelli.

Today, the two-story barn is used as a place for Butch and Shelli to welcome friends and family. It features a comfortable, covered front porch, a TV, a pool table, and a faux elk-horn chandelier. Last year, the couple hosted their families for Christmas in the barn, placing a dining table on the second level and decorating with a Christmas tree for the occasion.

“It’s just nice and kind of fun,” says Butch.

“It’s a gathering place,” adds Shelli. “It’s quaint and subtle.”

Greg and Joyce Donaldson

Joyce Donaldson admits she never had much appreciation for the old, tri-level barn that sits near her driveway at Kansas Road and Moffet Lane. Her attitude changed a few years ago when a group of Amish workers came to help Joyce and her husband Greg restore the building.

“They explained how the barn worked and how the farmer probably used certain areas,” she says. “It just became more interesting to me and more intriguing to hear about the lifestyle.”

The Donaldsons’ barn was built in 1889 and was constructed with mostly white oak, along with sweet gum and cottonwood in the floor joists. Thanks to research done by dendrochronologist Darrin Rubino of Hanover University, who studies the rings of trees, the Donaldsons also know that some of the trees used to erect the barn date back as far as 1748.

“The barn was part of what we think was a dairy farm,” says Joyce. “There were numerous stalls down in the bottom level.”

Every inch of space was used in the barn. The second level was storage for machinery used at the time, and the upper level housed bails of hay used to feed the livestock. Other interesting pieces of the barn include a large iron hook at the top level to move hay bails, an old medicine box on the lower level, and old doors that lift up on the sides to aerate the cattle stalls.

▲ Greg and Joyce Donaldson restored their 1889 barn and now use the space for various events and private parties. The couple has even welcomed members of the Eykamp String Quartet for a concert. The old beams of the barn provided excellent acoustics for the quartet, says Joyce. Photos by Jordan Barclay.

Today, the Donaldsons use their barn for gatherings and events. Joyce says they’ve opened the building to an international mission bazaar, a garden club, and their own private parties with friends and family.

“It’s just been fun to open it up,” says Joyce. “I mean, what are you going to do with an old barn? You’ve got to make your own fun with it.”

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Barn Business

Local ventures give new life to old farm staples

▲ Farmer & Frenchman, Henderson, Kentucky

Katy Groves-Mussat says her great-grandfather Triplett placed the family farm’s barn, built in 1940, in a great position to host events.

“It faces east, so the sun sits behind the barn and it’s not blasting people in the face when they have their wedding here,” she says. “And the hill is great for the grapes and the vineyard.”

Mussat opened Farmer & Frenchman (farmerandfrenchman.com) with her husband Hubert in 2015 as a small winery and unique event space. The business includes her great-grandfather’s barn, which was used to hang tobacco for many decades up until 2012. When Hubert saw the barn, Mussat says he was inspired to repair it and create a winery.

“I kind of joke that instead of buying me an engagement ring, he rebuilt the barn,” says Mussat.

The couple host events at the barn — their biggest draw is weddings — and it is connected to the new winery, which features brands new to the area and wines the Mussats have been making for the past three years.

“It feels good carrying on the agrarian function of my family,” says Mussat. “The last ones to farm were my great-grandparents. Now we’re finally moving back out into the country.”

▲ Higher Ground, New Haven, Illinois

Climb to the top level of Pam McKinney’s barn outside of New Haven, Illinois, and you can see Kentucky and Indiana.

“The view is so spectacular,” McKinney says.

The property — which also includes a farmhouse with four full baths and bedrooms — has been a part of McKinney’s family since 1891, when her great-grandparents purchased the farmland. The barn was built sometime in the 1860s, she says, and had been falling into disrepair after the death of her father in 1999.

“I couldn’t let it fall down. It’s a landmark,” says McKinney.

So she got to work repairing the structure. It was then she noticed how much attention the rustic building drew from others. “I realized a lot of people were interested. I thought I might as well make it something that could pay for itself,” she says.

The barn now serves as an event space called Higher Ground (higherground.events) and hosts weddings, receptions, anniversaries, private parties, and more. The business also offers catering services for guests.

“It’s more than I ever dreamed it could be,” says McKinney.

▲ Benton Garden Center, Henderson, Kentucky

Travel down U.S. Highway 60 E. in Henderson, Kentucky, and you’ll stumble upon Benton’s Garden Center and Sweet Pea’s Gift Shop, which calls an old cattle barn its home. 

A part of Gene Warren’s family since 1927, the barn dates to 1897, and is located next to the Warren’s Daffodil Farm. Ten years ago, Audrey and Jerry Benton approached Warren about leasing the barn for their garden and landscaping business. The former farming building now nurtures budding gardeners. Benton Garden Center has been in business for more than 35 years and includes the Sweet Pea’s Gift Shop (sweetpeas-giftshop.com), which Audrey says offers many cute and fun items to customers.

“My theme is just to be fun. We’re laid back and we like people,” she says.

Customers love the look of the building, she adds, which is what makes having their business in the old barn all the better.

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The Top 200

Bicentennial Barns project records and rewards the best

Between Vanderburgh and Posey counties, six barns earned distinction from the Bicentennial Barns project, one of the many endeavors endorsed by Indiana’s Bicentennial Commission.

Vanderburgh County’s selected barn owners are Kent Burress; John, Bill, and Jim Niehaus; and Earl and Grace Robertson. From Posey County are McFadden Farm Inc., Woodrow McFadin Jr., and Tom and Ruth Wintczak.

“I really wasn’t thinking about ‘winning’ anything,” says Tom Wintczak, “but looked at the opportunity to have our barn ‘cataloged’ into some historic archive of the state.”

▲ When Tom and Ruth Wintczak explained to an Amish foreman they wanted a space for brown bats and screech owls to get in and out, he suggested cutting five stars into the side of their barn.

Conceived in 2014, the project officially began in February 2015 and closed in December. The steering committee received entries from across the state and selected 200 barns that were built prior to 1950, retain integrity of original design and materials, and served an essential agricultural purpose. Entries were considered for their aesthetics, condition, geographic distribution, and construction type.

“This program celebrates the future through renewed pride of ownership and awareness of programs in support of barns,” says Project Coordinator Betsy Jones. “We’re collecting stories and histories of barns to commemorate Indiana’s agricultural legacy and these magnificent architectural workhorses that are the backbone of every farm.”

The top 200 are featured in a traveling exhibit, made possible by working with other endorsed projects, museums, galleries, and major public events like the Indiana State Fair.

“There are so many barns that have succumbed to storms, fire, rot, and neglect,” says Wintczak. “The interior timber framing of barns, for me, takes on the beauty of a wooden ‘cathedral.’ The work and skill that went into raising a barn was incredible, from the felling of the trees, the hewing of the logs, and the standing up of the sections. We felt like it was our stewardship to do what we could to save ours for the future.”

For more information or to register your barn, visit 200indianabarns.com.

Barnstorming:

Barnalliance.org
The National Barn Alliance is a nation-wide organization that plans efforts to preserve America’s historic barns.

Indianabarns.org
The Indiana Barn Foundation is a state-wide movement to save barns in the Hoosier Heartland.

Indianabarns.org/barn-quilt
A calendar featuring the scheduled stops for the Indiana Bicentennial Barn Quilt.

gibsoncountyin.org/barn-quilt-trail
The Gibson County Barn Quilt Trail features more than 225 hand-painted blocks adorning the local landscape.

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