Written by Elizabeth P. Beckley
Ask anyone the above question and chances are they can tell you about a favorite barn, either recalled from childhood, summer escapes, or in the community where they live today. The wonderful historic barns in Maryland are the subject of a documentary being produced by Maryland Public Television to air in October, just in time for harvest season! Recently I was contacted by producer Jonathan Slade to help him uncover some of the gems hidden on the Eastern Shore. He explained that there was an abundance of barns to choose from on the ‘Western Shore’, i.e. the other side of the Chesapeake Bay, but not so for this part of Maryland. Why I wondered, when this is primarily an agricultural region? It turned out to be an inspired quest - and an educational one at that. What I discovered is that many of the oldest barns on the Eastern Shore have not survived.
There are few sights on our rural landscape that tell the story of the American spirit more than a wonderful old barn. As working structures in the truest sense of the word, many eastern shore barns have given way to larger more practical buildings that reflect critical transitions in the cultural and agricultural history of our region. Simply put, in order for the eastern shore farmer to survive over the past 350 years he had to adapt and diversify, both quickly and efficiently. What resulted was a rollercoaster of agricultural change that resulted in the loss of countless numbers of agricultural structures. Here on the eastern shore, the era of tobacco farming (and the tobacco barn) transitioned into wheat production and from there into corn, vegetables, dairy, soy and poultry.
Over the years our farms became decentralized and crops were shipped to the western shore by schooner for processing, storage and shipping. In essence, large plantations gave way to the smaller general farms in the 1800s and with the advent of the industrial revolution and World Wars I and II our farms became highly specialized centers of production that today primarily serve the poultry industry. So tell me, what is an old barn to do?
Fortunately, with the help of some friends I was able to assemble a variety of barns to film. We captured 10 very special sites in two hot, harried days of filming. From Cecil to Somerset Counties we filmed tobacco barns, hay barns, granaries, corn cribs, dairy barns and even a World War I-era hog barn. The stories told by their owners were the best part. In some cases the barns had been in families for over 100 years, and in others, were parts of properties specifically purchased because of their barns. All in all, the owners are proud stewards, and the care and upkeep of their barns has become a passion in their lives - almost like members of their own families. Instead of the barns being valued for their ability to be purposeful, they have provided a sense of purpose to their owners.
So, when you see an old barn, be sure to stop, have a look or even take a picture, because the next time you ride by, it may truly be thing of the past. You might even tip your hat to those who are working hard to keep these buildings standing and as you ride by shout out a great big thank you!
Elizabeth P. Beckley is the Eastern Shore Field Director for Preservation Maryland and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.