Califonia Bountiful

Tender timbers

May/June 2007 California Country magazine

Historic barns reflect farm and family histories.

Historic barns reflect farm and family histories

Follow any California country road and it won't be long before an old barn comes into view. And, like a poem, the sight will evoke special feelings and fond memories--of soft, filtered light, the laughter of cousins in the hayloft, the beauty of spider webs high in the eaves. In part, it's this ability to tap into people's emotions that makes barns so special.

"For me, there isn't just one reason for my attachment to barns," said Bob Crittendon, a retired Orange County public relations executive. He spent more than four years traveling the back roads of the West finding, photographing and learning about these magnificent farm structures. Along the way he published a book with stunning photos and fascinating stories--and became an advocate for preserving them.

"Barns have been described as American icons, and they're undeniably the most dominant landmark on the rural landscape. But I think their description as a bridge to the past is more germane," Crittendon said.

"We associate the barn and the family farm with earlier, better days--days when kids climbed trees and going to town seemed like really going somewhere," he explained, drawing on his own memories of his grandfather's barn in Tennessee. "It's not surprising the sight of a barn awakens those good, nostalgic feelings."

The title of Crittendon's book, Barn in the U.S.A., is a bit misleading. It does not include much about barns in the eastern parts of the United States, which he describes as "barn rich." The histories of the structures there are well documented and active preservation efforts are ongoing, he said.

It's the barns in the Western United States that captured Crittendon's interest. He said they're more diverse in terms of architecture because of geography and weather conditions. And that, he thinks, makes them more interesting. At the same time, barns in the West are perhaps more at risk than those in other parts of the United States because of increasing urban encroachment and a lack of organized preservation efforts.

Of great concern, Crittendon said, is that barns in the West are disappearing much faster than anywhere else in the nation. In Southern California, for example, only a handful of historic barns actually remain.

"The century-old barn that is a valuable historic treasure is too often knocked down to make way for a new shopping center," Crittendon said. "Soon they may all be gone."

He worries about the day when a child hears the age-old expression "big as a barn" and nothing comes to mind for that child.

There are, however, efforts under way to preserve historic barns across the West. The National Trust for Historic Preservation's BARN AGAIN! program, based in Colorado, helps farmers and ranchers find ways to maintain and use historic barns and agricultural buildings as part of their modern agricultural production.

More information on the national program is available at Crittendon's book, Barn in the U.S.A., is available through local booksellers or at

Dairy Barn
Point Reyes
Some of the most beautiful and innovative dairy barns in the nation can be found along the coast in Marin County, which is still a thriving ranching and farming region. Dairy barns in the early days were often painted white, perhaps to make them look more sanitary. This barn, near the headquarters of the Point Reyes National Seashore, once was white, but was repainted red before it was purchased by the federal government in 1964. The 52-by-98-foot hay barn was built in 1870 as part of the Shafter/Howard dairy operation. By 1920, the dairy was delivering 500 gallons of milk a day to San Francisco.
To visit: The Point Reyes National Seashore is open daily.
More info: or (415) 464-5100

The Old Red Barn
"Goodbye, God, I'm going to Bodie." This farewell is recorded in the 1880s diary of a young girl whose family took her to the remote and infamous hell town on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Bodie State Historic Park preserves the once-rollicking Gold Rush-era town, which in its heyday had 10,000 people and 65 saloons, in what is called a state of "arrested decay." Built in 1875, the horse and mule barn in what is now a ghost town has withstood more than a century of harsh weather and neglect.
To visit: Bodie is located on an unpaved road northeast of Yosemite National Park. Bodie State Historic Park is open year-round, but hours vary due to weather and season.
More info: or (760) 647-6445

Fountain Grove Round Barn
Santa Rosa
Although this 16-sided structure isn't really round, that's how most people see it. The distinctive shape has made it a popular landmark in Sonoma County. Built in 1899 as part of a utopian community's vineyard and wine-making operation, the "Brotherhood of New Life" farm at one time produced 90 percent of the wine in Sonoma County. The barn?about 70 feet in diameter and almost 60 feet high?originally housed the horses used in the vineyards.
To visit: While it can be seen from Highway 101 and public streets just north of Santa Rosa, the barn is not open for public tours.
More info: Historical information on the barn is available online from the Sonoma County Library at

Rancho Los Alamitos
Long Beach
The story of Rancho Los Alamitos reflects almost every era of Southern California history. Beginning around 500 A.D. when the mesa where it's located was a ceremonial and trading center for the Tongva people, the story flows through the Spanish and Mexican periods, spans the great cattle-raising years and the early 20th-century oil discoveries, and moves into the rapid urbanization that followed World War II.Today, surrounded by modern development, the rancho's graceful 1909 saltbox-style dairy barn has been restored to its original condition. The redwood barn and six other agricultural buildings help form the nucleus of a vibrant cultural and educational center that occupies ground that was once part of a 300,000-acre Mexican land grant.
To visit: The rancho is open some afternoons and by appointment. Tours are free.
More info: or (562) 431-3541

Concrete Barn
Although "big" and "red" are usually the way barns are described, the long cement and stone barn in Julian, east of San Diego in the rugged Cuyamaca Mountains, adds an interesting dimension to California's historic barns. Built in 1908, this 300-foot-long structure was used for freight storage, stabling teams, wagons and supplies. It is believed to be the longest historic barn in the West. Quaint Julian now is surrounded by apple and pear orchards and is a popular tourist destination, offering bed and breakfast accommodations and antiques. The privately owned barn is being renovated and will be used by the ranch family in its cattle and horse operation.
To visit: While the barn is not open to visitors, Julian itself offers plenty of charm and attractions.
More info: or (760) 765-1857

Wilder Ranch Horse Barn
Santa Cruz
The Wilder Ranch is a state historical park and provides an example of a family ranch and dairy business that dates back to 1859. Along with an 1839 adobe, the Wilder family's 1896 Victorian home, granary, farmhouse and other farm buildings, there's an 1891 Victorian-style horse barn. It features an unusual asphalt floor that was well ahead of its time. The Wilder Ranch cow barn, while not as attractively built, is older than the horse barn by 50 years.
To visit: The park,which is open daily, has tours and living history demonstrations to help visitors explore the history of early ranchers and farmers along the Central Coast.
More info: or (831) 426-0505

Irvine Ranch Barn
Once part of a sprawling cattle operation, this dilapidated barn on Irvine Ranch is among the dozen or so original buildings that have survived from the early days of California. It is being restored as a central component of a new Irvine Ranch Historic Park, which will include more than a dozen buildings relating to the county's agricultural history. The park also is home to the Orange County Farm Bureau. When the barn restoration project is complete, it will include a museum of turn-of-the-century farm equipment.
To visit: Located in the city of Irvine, sections of the park are open to the public during restoration and construction. A Farm Bureau-sponsored certified farmers' market is held at the park on Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
More info: or (949) 923-2230

Barn facts and fantasy

A barn is not just a storehouse for farming essentials. It's also a repository for family histories and cultural traditions. Here are some of the stories barns have to tell:

For more than 200 years, red has been the traditional color for American barns. The choice is based on a 1700s paint formula that included ferrous oxide, skim milk and lime. Today it's a designer paint color available at any home improvement center.

One scientist has suggested that modern farmers prefer red barns because the color breaks up all the green they see every day. The jury is still out on this notion.

Dairy farmers, on the other hand, often paint their barns white. Reportedly that's because they think the color looks cleaner and neater. But it's not unusual to find dairy barns with black trim, touches of green and sometimes even snippets of pink and other pastels.

The first great barns in America were built by early Dutch colonists, following the gambrel roof style, which is sometimes echoed in the design of historic Western barns. Locally available building materials, however, often played a bigger part in regional barn styles than European architectural tradition.

Hardwood timber and savvy design account for the long service of historic Western barns. Farmers say, "A first-quality barn demands first-quality wood." In California, barn builders have often preferred sturdy redwood.

When it comes to getting the word out, advertisers used to take the broad side of a barn and make it a billboard--with some turn-of-the-century ads promoting "Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription," Larro Feeds" and "Mail Pouch Tobacco." Today's barns continue to carry advertising, art and whimsy.

Weather vanes, however humbly crafted, have long been the crowning touch on California barns. But these days handmade specimens are prized as valuable folk art. Recently, Southeby's auctioned a unique weather vane for an astounding $770,000.

Kate Campbell is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or

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