Rural Missouri Magazine
Barns of Missouri
Storehouses of history

Many Missourians will recognize the idyllic farm scene complete with the quintessential red barn like this one in St. Charles County. Though the Missouri countryside is dotted with old barns, many are lost each year to the ravages of time and development. The book "Barns of Missouri" tells the story of the barn's development and changes which mirror changes in farming itself.

This winter Rural Missouri and the state’s electric cooperatives will publish the 160-page book, “Barns of Missouri: Storehouses of History,” by Howard Wight Marshall, professor emeritus of art history and archaeology at the University of Missouri-Columbia and former director of the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center.

Marshall has spent most of his career studying buildings of one kind or another and farm buildings, especially barns, hold a special place in his heart. He’s photographed barns all across the United States as well as in Scotland, England and Wales. A drive with Marshall through the Missouri countryside is a rolling lecture on how barns were developed and used, what they say about the people who built them and how they changed over time with changes in farming.

The history of barns in Missouri cannot be told in a single book, but we hope to provide Missourians with just a glimpse of a building so common as to be almost invisible to many of us as we drive around the state.

After reading Marshall’s history of the barn and looking at the many barn photos, both color and historic black and white, we hope readers will never look at a barn quite the same again.
Included here is an excerpt from the book’s preface, which will be available through
Rural Missouri in December.

by Howard Wight Marshall

I have been photographing old barns for something like 40 years. And in working on this book I engaged a number of friends and compatriots to help. Certain regions of the state will be better represented than others. Travelers know that some parts of Missouri are thick with old barns while in other regions barns are scarce.

A stout barn in Warren County contains hand-hewn beams.

Those facts are sharply reflected in the settlement and economic history, and indeed the environmental history, of our state and people.

In many parts of the Ozarks, settlement was sparse and the rocky, rolling land did not allow the kinds of large farms we see in prairie counties like Pemiscot, Audrain, Saline or Buchanan.

The visitor to St. Louis County finds urban development, highways and commercial infrastructure laying concrete and building on every available inch of ground. A few historic barns and buildings survive there, for which we are thankful to the citizens and forward-thinking town councils.

On the other hand, there are parts of counties where rich bottom lands and rolling hills continue to be marked by family farming operations going back six or seven generations. We can visit farms where the first barn built, from 1820 if not before, remains in good repair and in daily use.

Those families are lucky their ancestors happened to settle on comparatively remote and fertile ground the miners and the loggers did not want, rather than where interstate highways, recreational lakes and dam projects and urban centers were to develop.

The story of barns cannot be told without including the people who not only built barns, but also those who relied on them. Billy Lee, who grew up in Warren County, created this carved image of the family farm, complete with barn, where he grew up. The farm no longer exists.

Many people think the barns scattered across the landscape are nothing more than relics or simple shelters for crops and livestock. Some see old barns as charming bits of nostalgia reminiscent of The “Good Old Days.” Some see them as scruffy eyesores. Rural fire departments often consider decrepit barns as good places to practice putting out fires. The traditional hay and livestock barn is an endangered species.

In the introduction to one of the memorable 1880s Missouri county histories, the anonymous writer offers this:

“The lapse of time, the advance of civilization, the wonderful scientific discoveries that within the past 40 years have added so much to the comfort and pleasure of the world, have had the effect to make life so roseate with the hue of an easy-going and tranquil existence that the privations, hardships and dangers of the pioneer settlers are overlooked, undervalued and forgotten.”
— “History of St. Charles, Montgomery, and Warren Counties, Missouri”

I trust that present and future Missourians will continue to find ways to deny the bitterness in such statements. Recording and offering some commentary on our past, in books like this one, offers one way to convey today’s heritage to the future.

People learn about history from their environments, books, depictions in the media and stories told around the supper table. A major element in our feelings about history is the buildings we see and know. We learn about our past by experiencing architecture. Buildings shape our ideas about who we are and where we come from. For a more complete picture of our Missouri past, we need barns. The house and barn of the pioneer are more than just shelter, they are statements of family history, ambition, economy.

Hand-hewn walnut beams and center post stand sturdy in a Warren County barn.

Barns are essential in the workaday world, yet the kinds of old barns we treasure are rapidly being erased by the intractable currents of change. Perhaps through this book, we may come to better know the wealth of barns in Missouri.

Perhaps we may begin to challenge ourselves, beyond nostalgia, to find new ways to appreciate these old structures and find ways to conserve this great legacy for the benefit of future generations.

Information about ordering the book, “Barns of Missouri: Storehouses of History” is available by calling (573) 635-6857, ext. 3426. Order forms for the book are also available on line.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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