History at risk: Local barn enthusiast begins Shenandoah County barn survey in hopes of preservation

John Adamson, program manager of the Historic Barns of Shenandoah County, stands outside this 100-year-old posted forebay barn on the Wetzel Farm, which is owned by the Town of Woodstock, on Tuesday. Adamson has completed over 40 surveys of county barns and is part of a preservation and documentation effort for the structures. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – John Adamson, a self-proclaimed barn enthusiast and historian, admires and yet worries about the fate of the historic barns in Shenandoah County. Through his barn survey, Adamson aims to educate, document and ultimately preserve a vital image of American history one barn at a time.

“No one’s building barns anymore,” Adamson said. “At least not the ones I call historic.”

Nestled throughout Shenandoah County are over 1,000 unique barns built from the mid-1700s to the 1950s that reflect the changes in traditions and local customs the valley has seen since its early settlement. They range in size, color and building material.

“Barns evoke a sense of tradition,” Adamson said. “A sense of closeness with the people who built them and their land.”

Shenandoah County has seen its fair share of turmoil, but one thing remains: its barns.

“Shenandoah County barns provide a window into early settlement history, agricultural history and practice, and even our turbulent Civil War history,” he said. “Today they stand as testaments to the work ethic of our citizens and are part of Shenandoah County’s beautiful rural landscape.”

Today many of these long-standing structures are slowly crumbling due to disrepair, neglect, and weather and therefore become  endangered. Through a historic barn survey, Adamson aims to celebrate, count, photograph, study and, wherever possible, preserve the barns for the benefit and enjoyment of locals and visitors.

“I started this project because I love history. But I wish I could say it was that simple,” he said. “Once I really started studying the barns, uncovering their stories, interviewing their owners, I realized how important these barns are to the county’s history. Therefore, I felt a need to share their stories.”

Since beginning last year, Adamson has visited and documented over 40 barns. To many, a barn is a barn. To Adamson, a barn is a piece of American history that soon may be lost.

Adamson openly admitted that at the beginning of his project he wasn’t as knowledgeable about barns as he is today. He noted that with each visit he learns something new.

“That’s what makes this so interesting. Each barn tells its own story,” he said.

When surveying a barn, Adamson takes his time in noting the architectural description. He then photographs and gathers information on the barn’s age, historical setting and location. He pays close attention to openings and interior spaces, and then enters it into a database maintained by the Shenandoah County Historical Society that will be made available for research and education purposes.

More than ever before, these icons are threatened, Adamson said. Changes in technology have made traditional barns largely obsolete for modern agriculture.

Ideally, Adamson said he would like to see every barn in Shenandoah County preserved, but he knows that’s not logical or financially possible. Often barn owners simply don’t know what to do with their barns or don’t want to put any money into them, so the majority remain unused and begin to decay over time.

“Today’s barns aren’t really barns,” he said. “They’re simply structures to house animals, equipment or hay.”

Hoping to document what is left in Shenandoah County, Adamson said he plans to visit as many barns as possible. His ultimate goal is to create a book showing the pride of Shenandoah County and its barns. He does not know when he will be able to publish it.

“Right now my goal is to focus on locating and documenting as many barns as I can,” he said.

The mission of Adamson’s historic barn survey is to educate and document. But in time he said he hopes to be able to assist in the preservation of individual barns in and around Shenandoah County. In conjunction with the Shenandoah County Historical Society and local artist Sally Veach, Adamson wants to be able to identify sources of financial assistance including restoration grants and tax credits to barn owners.

Considering the number, Adamson said he’s up for the challenge.

“Our county cares immensely for these historic structures,” he said. “But barns, no matter where they are, tend to get overlooked. We have no idea of how many have already been lost. All I know is it’s part of our heritage. And that’s enough for me.”