Knowing that Indiana had many interesting old barns, I emailed the local historical society, explained my barn project, and volunteered to raise funds for their 4-H. They responded enthusiastically and told me that someone would get in touch. Months later, Ron Myer, who is on both the historical board and the agricultural museum foundation, replied that someone would work on finding barns for me. A few weeks before the marathon, I spoke with Ron who told me that his group was busy with a fall festival fundraiser but would get to the barns soon. So, to be safe, I made a hotel reservation for an extra night, figuring we’d look for barns on Thursday, I’d relax on Friday, and run the marathon on Saturday. A week before the marathon, I again talked with Ron who told me he’d have about 30 barns for me. Sure, I thought.
I left early – at half past six o’clock – hoping to arrive in Columbia City before nine, the time I told Ron I’d arrive. And, after a pleasant drive through flat farmland in western Ohio and northeastern Indiana, I pulled in the parking lot. The “ag” museum, a large rectangular pole-barn building, looked too modern to be interesting, though its website, which I looked at a few days earlier, impressed me. Ron met me in the parking lot.
Inside, the rich history of Whitley County unveiled itself: several antique tractors, hundreds of antique farm and barn-building tools, a cooper’s display, and other learning stations where 4-H’ers discovered how their ancestors, the pioneer farmers, lived and worked. The place reeked of passion for the past.
A bigger surprise came when we walked into the conference room where, laid out neatly in piles, were 30-some packets of photos of barns, each labeled with the name of the owner and a number corresponding to its location on a county engineer’s map. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I asked Ron, “How did you get so many in two weeks?” Humbly, he didn’t gloat or react much to my surprise, but, as it turned out, Ron had raised the bar for barn scouting. And, that bar was set pretty high by several of my Ohio barn scouts.
Having lived in the county for decades and having worked a farm, Ron knew many of the local farmers and what their barns looked like. Advantage one. I had told him that I liked the ones deteriorating, those with photographic character and a good story or two. He knew I didn’t mind a metal roof, but that I preferred barns with wood siding and built before 1930, and he understood that I would paint a small study painting for the owner if I’d get barn wood for framing. So, he wrote an article about my project, which merited front page coverage in the local newspaper, and prompted many calls from barn owners. Advantage two. They liked the project and they had barn wood. Ron also showed me a Walgreen’s app on his phone, which he used to take several photos of each barn. Advantage three. “All I had to do after a day of looking at barns was to go to the app, select the photos, and stop at Walgreen’s an hour later to pick up the prints. Simple.” And that from a 77-year-old techie. Color me impressed again. Ron was retired and had time to scout – advantage four – and had a strong sense of history about these farms and their barns – advantage five.
The next challenge was for me to select 12 of the barns, which is the number I prefer doing for a fundraiser. That was difficult and, after picking 12, I told Ron I felt badly for not being able to choose more, especially those barns where the owners responded to the newspaper article and had called him. So I told him that I’d return next year for another round, assuming that his board wanted me back and that I liked the marathon. That seemed fair.
By ten o’clock, we were off in Ron’s truck. A friend of Ron’s, Ron King, he retired from farm management, went with us. His brother, a professional auctioneer, volunteered to conduct the auction of my paintings, scheduled for the county fair next July. These people were organized. We visited barns, took a Subway lunch break, collected wood, and got a few stories, though we met only a few of the barn owners. Most were either working on the farm or at other jobs. With sunset approaching, we quit, my car stacked with planks of barn wood, and I registered at the motel. Had dinner at a country diner called Ralph’s, a delightful place, full of local color.
The next day we visited more barns, bringing the total to 12, which didn’t include Ron’s, though I told him I’d toss his in as well – as a personal favor. On Saturday I saw more barns while running 26 miles through farm country on a chilly morning. I liked this small, well-organized marathon and hoped to run it again next year. Now, back to the grindstone – cut the wood, make the frames, size the boards, and do the paintings. Thanks to Ron and thanks to Whitley County for allowing me to preserve some history.
Ron’s Barn Scouting Method:
- Be retired or be someone with ample time
- Have an interest in old barns, their history, and a passion for the past
- Have many local contacts
- A few months before my visit, pass the word along to barn owners
- A month before my visit, run a newspaper article about my project and my offer for comp painting, and include your phone number for those interested
- Contact owners to see if barn wood is available for framing
- Take photos of the barns, label each batch, assemble in order with numbers and location on a county map. Identify barns where wood is available. Explain to owners that we may stop by on day of my visit, meet them, get stories and wood.
- Allow me to select 10-12 barns, based on my criteria.
- Drive to barns to allow me to take photos, make sketches, take wood if available, and meet owners if they’ll be home