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"The Barn Raisers" Finds Unexpected Humanity in the History of Barns

Jim Wise

Tami Rundle understands that a barn is not necessarily the sexiest subject for a documentary. When her husband Kelly suggested doing an hour-long feature of the creation and history of barns, she was hesitant.

"I was like, 'Ooo-kay...we'll give this a shot,'" she laughs. "But, as is often the case with our documentary subjects, I caught the bug. And probably the most inspirational and wonderful part of the project was hearing these stories, and that really is the soul of the film. That is what brings these barns to life again."

Their documentary, The Barn Raisers, shows how barns evolved in the Midwest by looking at their architecture. Rudy Christian, founding president of Friends of Ohio Barns, says understanding barns goes hand in hand with understanding our agricultural past.

"When we were kids, we spent so much time in barns that were part of our family, that were part of our community, we realized just how important a part of that was, and how tangibly farms connect us to our past."

He and his wife run a traditional timber frame building company, Christian and Son. They became interested in barn preservation after they were tapped to restore a large barn on the Malabar Farm in Ohio. His wife suggested inviting the public to watch the raising of the barn.

"It used to be that whenever you raised a barn--you could build the barn with just a handful of people, but when it came time to actually put the building up, that's when the community became involved. So we opened it up to the public and decided to invite them. And as it turns out, over 50,000 people came to watch us raise that barn. And so what we realized is that there was a much deeper connection."

That connection runs through The Barn Raisers, as the diversity of barns reflects the diversity of nationality, and of utility, that occurred in Midwestern agriculture. 

"The hewn timber barns, log barns, ethnic barns: German and English and Swedish and Norwegian. And then barns built for different cropping systems, and what they needed to house: Were they housing horses or cattle? Was it a sheep farm? Are there going to have granaries in there with oats or wheat? And all of these things evolved and changed over time," says Marlin Ingles, architectural historian and archeologist.

And, for what its worth, Kelly Rundle disagrees with his wife.

"I was kind of also taken by the round barns, as so many people are. One of our interviewees described them as the 'sexy barn.' And they are."

In this hour of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with the Rundles about their film.

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa