“Hand Raised: The Barns of Montana,” by Chere Jiusto and Christine W. Brown, with photographs by Tom Ferris. Montana Historical Society Press, Helena. Softbound, 305 pages. $27.95.
A coffee table book about barns? Really?
When I was growing up in South Texas, barns were vaguely disreputable. Leave your jeans unzipped, and someone would tell you the barn door was open. Commit a breach of etiquette, and someone would ask if you had been raised in a barn.
True, barns had that musty, ancient smell, but they also had rats and snakes. When we stacked bales of hay on a summer day, hay dust in the barn was so thick it would create boogers the size of Ping-Pong balls.
So this fat volume entitled “Hand Raised: The Barns of Montana” made a rather unwelcome appearance in my mailbox. I didn’t really even want to look a pictures of barns, and I sure didn’t want to read about them.
But that was a mistake. The photographs by Helena photographer Tom Ferris were so gorgeous that it was impossible not to look, and the barns were so varied and distinctive that pretty soon I found myself reading photo captions, pages of description and finally whole sections. I was slowly pulled in.
More attentive observers of Montana agriculture than I am will recognize many of the barns here. The Yellowstone Basin section includes, for example, the Kent Dairy Round Barn near Red Lodge, formerly a dinner theater, and the rather undistinguished Southern Montana Agricultural Research Center Barns near Huntley.
But to me the nicest finds were the surprises, barns in our own backyard like the weathered but graceful Hesper Farm Barn west of town.
Barns range from the spectacular, such as the one pictured on this week’s front page, to the rustic, like the Barber/Ferris Barn in Madison County, nearly 150 years old. For each, the authors provide a succinct history, supplemented by general comments about the history and culture of barn building.
The authors note that many of the barns in Montana were built roughly at the same time, and they are now wearing out at about the same time. Difficult and expensive to maintain, they are no longer the emblems of pride, hard labor and success they once were.
Of the 6,000 historic Montana barns noted in the 2000 census, fewer than 140 made it into this book. The authors write, “More than anything, this book is a call to action. It is an effort to turn attention to these buildings and to raise interest in preserving them before they are gone.”
Before reading this book, the thought of missing barns might not have concerned me. But “Hand Raised” makes all too clear what would be lost.