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Historic barns help frame agriculture's future

July/Aug. 2011 California Country magazine



There's dignity and purpose inside old barns—filtered light, worn latches, a rusty horseshoe turned upside down. But these days, historic farm and ranch structures are usually seen in passing, as they become a view that's fast disappearing in California and across the West.

In the Napa Valley, however, an area known for lush vineyards and premium wines, the public has a chance each August to slow down and soak up local history during Preservation Napa Valley's historic barn tour. Participants learn firsthand how the structures were built and how they're used today.

The annual tour, conducted in partnership with the Napa County Farm Bureau, will focus this year on five historic barns of the Oakville-Rutherford area.

Preservation isn't merely about saving everything that's old, said Wendy Ward, Preservation Napa Valley executive director and a local tree fruit farmer and vegetable grower. "Preservation is about conservation of place and fostering the active use of historical buildings in a modern context," she said.


Wendy Ward, Preservation Napa Valley executive director, and her dog Roscoe will be on hand to talk about the county's historic barns during the upcoming barn tour.

Sometimes, Ward said, that means taking unique elements of historic structures that need to be torn down and incorporating pieces of them into new construction, an architectural technique called adaptive reuse.

"Sometimes preservation requires finding new uses for old structures that make them relevant to the 21st century," she said. "For example, we have a great little red barn in the area that served as a carriage house and ranch stable.

"Now, it's a really cool home and art studio. It was one of people's favorite stops last year. They'd walk in and say, 'Wow! I get it.' They'd see that these wonderful old buildings don't need to simply rot away. If done right, they can go on for another 200 years."

Ward said interest in preserving historic agricultural structures is growing. For example, a group of preservationists and timber framers gathered in May in a historic barn near Sacramento to discuss forming a statewide organization to promote preservation of barns. The new group, which includes farmers and ranchers as well as preservation experts, is working on a plan for identifying and protecting historic agricultural structures in California and other Western states.


The Raven Barn at Adastra Vineyards will serve as hub of the event.

California, the nation's largest farm state, tallied about 14,500 barns built prior to 1960 in the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture farm census. But that's far fewer than Texas, which has the most in the nation—with more than 51,000 barns reported. Nevada reported only about 500 historic barns.

"The barn tour is an innovative and enjoyable way to engage the community and help them understand more about our agricultural heritage," said Sandy Elles, Napa County Farm Bureau executive director. "History is a very important part of our farming culture. We learn from the past in order to protect our future, and we want the public to appreciate this link."

The National Barn Alliance provides leadership for the preservation of America's historic barns and rural heritage. Information on the alliance is available at www.barnalliance.org. The National Trust for Historic Preservation offers tips on restoring barns at www.preservationnation.org.

Kate Campbell is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or kcampbell@californiacountry.org.

Barn tour details

Preservation Napa Valley's barn tour will be held Sunday, Aug. 28, in the Oakville-Rutherford area. The full-day event costs $45 per person and includes a map to the barns and tour program, as well as brunch in a barn, live music and an art show and auction. It's been a sold-out event in past years, so organizers recommend making early reservations online at www.preservationnapavalley.org or by calling 707-258-9286.


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