The Barns of Pennington County
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Barns are a familiar environment for me, a preferred environment. Growing up at my parents farm, we milked Holstein cattle in a large, round-roof barn. That old barn was a whole separate universe. My love for barns is equal parts emotional and historic but there’s room for many feelings when it comes to the former center of most farms. I recently found out I’m not alone in my attachment.

Winter was a great time to share a space with the cows and cats in our old barn. It was the only place other than the house where you could hang up your jacket without freezing. The cattle kept the barn warm while the hay upstairs kept the barn well-insulated. The cats loved to perch on the cattle or on the tractor we parked inside this warm structure for easy starting. You could feed hay, milk the cows, haul corn silage, feed the calves and listen to the radio all without leaving our old “gothic-style” barn. I loved to look upstairs and imagine the light passing through the cedar shingles was the twinkling of stars.

Yeah, you could say I like that old structure.

The Smithsonian Institute likes barns too. They like the history and progression of different styles and have documented this with their exhibit, “Barn Again.” “Barn Again” is a series of large kiosks that include pictures and narratives that will connect you to America’s agricultural past which grew in the shelter of a variety of barns. The Smithsonian exhibit finds it’s latest host this summer at the Peder Engelstad Historical Village in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. I recently spoke to Faye Auchenpaugh who told me that in addition to this exhibit, there will be several tours of the barns of Pennington County. Each week, three townships worth of barns will be featured in a bus tour spanning seven straight weeks. If you’re looking for the quaint post and beam construction of the Colonial Northeast, you may be surprised. These were barns constructed during the short Minnesota construction season by our poor immigrant fathers, probably a welcome change from the sod shanty they’d replaced. These are lean, working barns-not the fat show bull of a barn tourists sometimes expect. The tour began this past winter during a “windshield survey” of Pennington County barns. At the survey’s completion, five or six barns were chosen from each township and then included on this summer’s guided bus tour. Volunteers will be on hand at the exhibit and during the tour to answer questions explain barn styles and their purpose.

People travel to lands far-off where they try to purchase a glimpse of the past at a local gift shop. Northern Minnesota’s past still lives in children who can tell you about milking cows, feeding hay and finding time to watch stars in a family barn. People can share a barn’s story but a barn tells an even better tale of the people who built it. No matter who’s talking it’s a story worth your time.