The Barns of McDonough County, Illinois

Americana, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on February 11, 2001

Nothing conjures up the image of this countrys agricultural past like the sight of a big red barn. Standing tall against the elements, these icons that once dotted the American landscape are not nearly as common as they once were. Thats why people in McDonough County in west-central Illinois are trying to preserve the barns that remain and cultivate an appreciation for the role they have played in the nations farming history.

I think its a trip down nostalgia lane for many people, says Kent Slater, a local judge and one of the proponents of the free, self-guided tours that allow people to visit 30 privately owned barns within 20 miles of Macomb, Ill. All of the structures were built at least 80 years ago, and a dozen of them were constructed in the late 1800s.

Slater, who grew up on a nearby farm, says barns indicate a lot about the land around them and about the families who built them. The nicer barns and nicer farmsteads are built on the better quality land, he says, explaining that when crops bring in more cash, farmers can afford to build and maintain better barns.

Once used to house livestock and store grain, barns arent built as often as in the past. In fact, with the increasing size of farm equipment and rising property tax rates, its not uncommon for barn owners to tear down the historic structures when they fall into disrepair.

In McDonough County, local tourism and history buffs found a new use for the old structures, creating a detailed map to guide people through the back roads to the better-maintained and most interesting barns.

Its always a high-request item for the mature traveler, people who are interested in history, says Catherine Walker of the Macomb Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. She adds that some of the barns have been restored, and they are quite picturesque, and lovely.

One of the first things that strike you when you begin the tour is the variety of architectural styles among the barns. The stereotypical big red barn is one of many variations.

Barn style is determined by the shape of the roof, whether it be a simple two-sided slant, a four-sided roof with cupola (or ventilating dome). All of the barns in McDonough County are made of wood. The styles range from a 1920 square, three-story hen house with fading white paint to a 1914 round barn, to a restored and recently painted 1889 barn.

Slater explains barn styles tend to be somewhat localized. It seems that one farmer builds a barn and a neighbor says I like that and tries to build one like it or even out-do it, he says.

In McDonough County, the prevailing styles are Gambrel, characterized by a roof that appears to be a cross between an arch and a basic, two-sided pitched roof, and the cross-gable, which has four separate two-sided portions of the roof, each jutting out in opposite directions. Many of the barns in the area were designed with some variation to the cross-gable style.

The oldest barn on the tour was erected in 1868. The simple two-sided red barn, about six miles north of Macomb, is in better shape than many of the newer barns in the county and once housed cattle. The newer structures date back to the 1920s.

Charles Chick Flack, a local attorney who has restored the Double Valley Cross-Gable barn his great-grandfather built in 1900, says the barn is really no more than a garage, although its the most expensive garage around. Still, he says people who spend the time and money restoring barns do it because theyre interested in agricultural history and preserving it.

Its reminiscence, or whatever you want to call ittrying to keep the old times alive.