BLACKVILLE, S.C. - The weather-worn wooden barns that dot the nation tell a story about the past and present, tales kept alive by people like Margaret Rountree.
The 71-year-old woman from the small Barnwell County town of Elko has carefully preserved her father's barn, built sometime before 1940. Used to store hay and feed cows as recently as the 1960s, the barn still stands near U.S. Highway 78 and now shelters everything from riding lawn mowers to boat motors.
"We got everything including the kitchen sink out here," Ms. Rountree said as she toured the creaky building.
Barns, once icons that symbolized rural wholesomeness, have become less necessary in today's urbanized society.
A history of the structure, its impact on society and pictures of different barn architectural styles are on display until April 24 at the Clemson University Edisto Research and Education Center.
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. has loaned the research center a collage of barn pictures from across the country and detailed commentary on the structure called Barn Again! Celebrating An American Icon.
The nation's beginnings had deep agricultural roots. Barns were once the first structures to go up on a homestead. They served as warehouses for hay, cotton and animal feed. They provided shelter for calves, chickens and horses.
It was common for an entire farming community to help one of its neighbors erect a barn in a matter of days. A barn-raising was part work, part social event. Barns were focal points for rural communities. When chores weren't being performed, they made for makeshift dance halls.
Barns also were the billboards of a bygone era. A barn in Alabama on display at the Smithsonian exhibit had "Jesus Saves" painted on its side. One in Ohio had a pitch for Mail Pouch chewing tobacco etched on its exterior.
At one time, the makers of Mail Pouch employed painters who traveled the countryside, touching up such ads with new paint.
The display at the research center also shows how companies use pictures of barns to sell goods. State Brand Butter once had the picture of a red house and barn on its label to illustrate "purity and mom's home cooking."
With society's migration from farm to city, the barn has become more and more a symbol of nostalgia.
A first-grade student from Barnwell Elementary School who was touring the display asked about a picture that piqued his curiosity.
"Is that picture crooked, or is the house just falling?" he asked.
Claudia Meadows, a volunteer at the research center who is providing tours of the display, explained that it was indeed leaning on its last leg. But she and her family are proof that barns remain a vital necessity in some circles.
She grew up on a farm with a functioning barn in Hampton County, and she and her husband have one on their land near Blackville.
Quinby Jowers, a Williston tree farmer and board member of the Agricultural Heritage Center, which worked to bring the Smithsonian display to Blackville, still uses a barn on his property to house livestock and hay, among other things.
"The most fascinating thing to me is the change in barns in my lifetime," the 75-year-old said. "The family farm is almost gone."
Some barns are being converted into spacious homes, others into stores that sell farm goods.
Ms. Rountree and her family have gone to great lengths to save the barn on their land.
It was uprooted and moved from a town once known as Dunbarton when the Savannah River Site came to town.
"Barns just simply are not maintained anymore," she said.
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803)279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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