North-central Oklahoma is not particularly known for rock structures, although a few dot the downtown districts of the area. So rock barns are even less common, and when they grow to massive proportions - well, there's just one!
A few years ago, though, there were just about none.
Along highway 177, that splits the prairie in two from Stillwater to Chilocco Indian School, there are two structures that can be seen for miles. The OG&E Power plant and the 'rock barn'.
At first sight, usually from the exit of the interstate south of the barn, you can tell it is big. But, the distance makes it impossible to really make out its real size. You keep driving and glancing towards it as you travel north, and realize that you aren't quite to it yet, and it looks bigger and bigger the closer you get. When you finally approach it, you start to doubt yourself; it really doesn’t look that big after all. But that is because you are still not right in front of it, staring upwards at the peak of the gambrel roof, which seems to be as high as the clouds.
A landmark like that, standing against the wind and storms of the prairie, is something that everyone in the area knows about. In Ponca City, 20 miles away more or less, a conversation goes like this: "Well, some Colorado investors what to tear down that old rock barn, you know, on the highway to Stillwater"... "THAT one?".... "Yeah, they think that the rafters and stone might be valuable to build some of those fancy mountain 'cabins'"..... "they can't do that!"
That’s a typical conversation, actually, from a few years back. Colorado investors had made some private loans on the property, loans that eventually exceeded the real value of the land and that spectacular building.
It was unusual for a board member of Preservation Oklahoma to hear from property owners who presented demolition as an eventual plan if, with POK help, the land and building did not sell. Usually, preservationists are the ones who hear of the plan at the last minute, when the scaffolding and cranes are in place, and then have to scurry to find a more acceptable solution. This was different.
In a way, for nearly a year, we worked as kind of a gratis Realtor for the owners (living in the cool Rocky Mountains). We accompanied photographers as they flew over the property to create marketing videos. We fielded phone calls from eccentric Californians, and waded through the high grass and weeds to show the building to anyone interested.
On several of those trips, I got to show prospective buyers the inside of the barn. Just like the sight of a massive stone barn on the prairie of Oklahoma, the inside was unexpected. The main door faces west, and on a late summer afternoon, I pulled it open. With the sun at your back, staring into the abyss of a dark building, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust, but when they finally do, you begin to make out the sheer vastness of the space. The barn does not have a loft, and from the floor you are looking straight up at the rafters far above. It is like a cathedral, lofty. Not a brightly lit space dedicated to the profane and sacred, but a cathedral of the prairie. It was constructed to serve as an aid to the humble and hard work of growing grain and raising cattle; perhaps not as important a role as a cathedral plays for the soul, but certainly one that is essential for the body. Then, as all these thoughts run through your mind, your concentration is broken by the sight of two owls, flying high in the rafters. It is awesome to realize that the barn is long enough for them to get to their top speed flying from end to end.
Preservation Oklahoma was happy to be involved in the preservation of the barn, although in the end we really don't know what role we played beyond giving the owners faith that we would help. We did have the unwavering help and support of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, particularly Daniel Carey and the Southwest office. And we were aided as well by the National Trust's "BARN AGAIN!" program, assistance that was certainly appreciated. Perhaps all that help and interest bought the barn some additional time. Preservation Oklahoma did not know about the eventual sale, although we were contacted by the owners to tell us it sold. But the barn is still there, a prairie cathedral, and is, from all appearances, still serving its humble yet important role as a functional barn.
-- Brett A. Carter
Bret A. Carter, of Historic Images, LLC, is a co-session manager for “Ponca City: Where the 20s Still Roar”, a field session being offered during the 2008 National Preservation Conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Don’t miss this opportunity to see the Rock Barn and explore Ponca City.