Monday, August 6, 2012

Back to Ohio, Part 2

It seems like I've been traveling between Lorain and Chicago all my life.  My parents grew up in Chicago, and at least once or twice a year we would brave the 8-hour drive.  Three kids, no air-conditioning. 

The one constant factor on these trips was an overwhelming sense of boredom.  What was all this space between cities, and when would it end?  I remember listening to radio stations that were so bad even my parents knew it. I developed an ability to sleep for long stretches of time.  Mostly I remember wishing it were over.  When I moved to Chicago and reversed the trip it was still boring, but, as a driver, falling asleep on the road became less of an option.

When I finished graduate school in 1999 I had no job and few prospects.  Eventually I was hired as a part-time freelance surveyor for a historic rural resources survey in portions of unincorporated Will County, southwest of Chicago.  This was an area under heavy development and was rapidly losing  historic farms and farmhouses. 

In addition to the field work I had agreed to put together a database to contain the survey information.  But before I could do that I needed to familiarize myself with the vocabulary of agricultural construction.  This was a topic I had never explored, but since I had bluffed my way into a job I was suddenly eager to learn.

Luckily, there are some great publications out there to help explain what you're seeing and what it means.  Some of the most useful were The Old Barn Book , How to Complete the Ohio Historic Inventory, and the classic Big House, LIttle House, Back House, Barn.  But best of all were  the books put out by the government printing office and agricultural colleges in the 1920s detailing how and why farms and farm buildings should be built in certain ways.

So I spent a couple of months driving out to Will County with a big atlas, tracking down farms, taking photographs, and determining parcel  numbers at the Recorder of Deeds office in Joliet.   I got barked at by huge dogs, but was never bitten.  This is often a benchmark for a successful field survey.

But the unexpected benefit of the job was that I was no longer bored on my trips between Lorain and  Chicago.  Suddenly what I was seeing made sense. I could often guess what type of farm it was, and maybe how it fit into the history of the area.  I also began to spot more and more farms which had been enveloped by agribusiness, where the acreage seemed to soar, but the outbuildings fell into piles of decayed lumber.

On our last trip I wanted to document some of the farms west of Toledo, where there's still an unusual concentration.  These images are adapted from photos taken from the car.  Still plenty of variety, with triple gable barns, gambrel barns, different types of granaries, silos, and farm houses.  And only a few falling into ruin.  It's taken a while, but now this is a part of the trip I always anticipate.

From the 1922 edition of The Wiley Technical Series, "Farm Buildings," by Foster and Carter.
From "American Carpenter and Builder," Feb. 1916.  Accessed via Google Books.


  1. Love the farm drawings - would make a nice limited edition poster!