There’s an old Kentucky saying: To see how people want you to think they live, look at their house. To see how they really live, look at their barn.
The commonwealth has deep roots in agriculture and more barns than almost any other state. Dozens of books have been published about Kentucky’s historic homes, but only a few about its historic barns.
Photographer Carol Peachee and architectural historian Janie-Rice Brother are working to fix that. They are traveling from one end of Kentucky to the other, photographing and researching barns, and they need your help.
“Hey people, what have you got back on your farm that we can’t see from the road?” Brother said. “We’re looking for a wide range, both in barns and geography. We are especially looking for more Eastern Kentucky barns. This book is not ‘Barns of the Bluegrass.’”
If you have a barn you think should be considered for the book, email them at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barns may all look alike to city folk, but they vary greatly by region and use. There are stock barns, dairy barns, mule barns and horse barns, not to mention stables. There are Appalachian barns, Pennyrile barns, bluegrass seed barns and, along the Ohio River, a few remaining hay-press barns.
Even tobacco barns differ greatly depending on whether they are for burley or flue-cured tobacco. One type of tobacco is cured by air, the other by smoke.
Several immigrant groups brought their own barn-building styles to Kentucky, such as Swiss settlers in Lincoln County and the German settlers at Camp Springs in Campbell County.
Some barns started out as houses, churches or, in the case of Floral Hall at the Red Mile in Lexington, a flower exhibition space for a county fair.
Peachee’s photography focuses on Kentucky’s cultural landscape and historic preservation. She has published two books about bourbon distilleries and is working on another related to the distilling industry.
More than a year ago, Peachee’s publisher asked her to consider a book about barns. As she began researching, people kept telling her she should contact Brother, who has done comprehensive barn surveys in several Kentucky counties. Brother works at the University of Kentucky and writes an architectural history blog, Gardens to Gables (Gardenstogables.com).
“It was like a dream come true for me,” said Brother, who grew up on a Montgomery County farm. “Farming has been the backbone of Kentucky for so long,” but its history has not been documented as well other aspects of the state.
Some of the first barns were log cribs or stone structures. But because of Kentucky’s relatively mild climate, many farms didn’t have barns until after the Civil War, when agriculture magazines became popular and promoted “progressive” farming techniques.
“While there are some stellar examples of pre-1900 barns, most were built in the 20th century,” Brother said.
Kentucky barns developed specific styles according to function and location. Over the generations, they often were modified and rebuilt using materials from other structures.
Since the federal tobacco quota program ended in 2005, Kentucky’s iconic burley tobacco barns have been rapidly disappearing from the landscape. Unlike states such as Virginia and Maryland, Kentucky has no state program to help farmers keep up their old barns and find new, productive uses for them.
Peachee said most photographic books she has seen about barns elsewhere focus on unique or scenic exteriors.
“But I really want to tell the story by going inside,” said Peachee, who works as a psychotherapist to support her photography habit. “It’s almost like layers of memoir. Barns tell a story, because there’s often a lot of people’s stuff in there.”
Kentuckians have long used barns to store things they hated to throw away because they might be useful someday. When a woman wants something out of her house, her husband often takes it to the barn, where it might remain for decades.
“My father told me that one of his chief beliefs was that every man who gets married should have a barn, because he needs a place to go to get away,” Brother said. “I thought, ‘That’s so true.’”