The Barnstormer

A few years ago, Doug Ohman was a theme-park executive with 600 employees. Today, he photographs barns. What happened?

Doug Ohman is not the kind of man who will brag that he has photographed every barn in the state of Minnesota. It's a big place, and even though Ohman fears that barns may be an endangered species, there are still an awful lot of them. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that he has surely tromped around and photographed more barns than anyone else has. Over a decade's worth of rambles on the state's dirt roads and two-lane byways, he has snapped photos of round barns, dairy barns, Yankee barns, gambel-roofed barns, Dutch-style barns, and barns that no longer can be neatly categorized, having collapsed to the ground.

Guiding his black Ford pickup truck south on Interstate 35 on a recent weekday afternoon, Doug Ohman points out a massive red barn on the west side of the freeway. The front of the structure is enigmatically emblazoned with a single word: "Sugardale."

As Ohman tells the story, roughly two decades ago a meat-processing company from somewhere out East approached the barn's owner about using the building in a television commercial. The company promised to repaint the entire structure in return for permission to temporarily tattoo the front with the company's logo. But apparently the Sugardale folks used a lower grade of paint to cover over their commercial handiwork. The subsequent paint job has gradually flaked away, leaving a prominent billboard for the company.

Bill Kelley

"At first he was a little upset about it," Ohman says of the barn's owner. "But now he kind of likes it."

Ohman is a 44-year-old self-taught photographer with a degree in history and geography from the University of Minnesota. He previously worked as the director of operations at the Mall of America's Camp Snoopy, but took to photography full-time starting in 2000. "It was a good job," Ohman says of the theme-park gig. "I don't want to diminish that job in any way. But given the choice between blue jeans or suit and tie, it wasn't too difficult. I had 600-plus employees. Now I have no employees."

Ohman pieces together a living mainly through landscape and historical photography. He sets up shop at roughly 30 art shows each year, and also does calendar and brochure work for organizations such as the crop insurance division of Wells Fargo. "It's busy, but it's very independent work," he says. "I don't do any studio stuff. I don't do any weddings."

His most recent project is a book entitled Barns of Minnesota, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. It features Ohman's photographs of barns from across the state, accompanied by a novella from author Will Weaver. It's the initial volume in a series dubbed "Minnesota Byways." Each of the books will include Ohman's photographs, coupled with text from various authors. The next volume, slated for a fall release, will showcase pictures of churches from around the state and prose from veteran Minnesota novelist Jon Hassler. Future books will document the state's schoolhouses, cabins, and courthouses.

Ohman grew up just north of Anoka, in an area that was predominantly rural. His first job, at age 12, was baling hay on an area farm. "I've been in and out of barns my whole life," he says. Where Ohman once baled hay, suburban soccer kids now play ball on the immaculately maintained fields of the National Sports Center. Sizeable farms are all but nonexistent these days in the closest two or three rings from the Twin Cities.

We exit the highway and circle back on a dirt road to take a closer look at the Sugardale barn. After greeting the family that owns the 150-acre property, a retired Northwest Airlines pilot and his wife, we traipse off to the barn. The land is now rented out for soybean and corn farming. The decaying, 80-year-old barn is used largely as a storage shed.

Ohman slides open the rickety wooden doors. A white barn cat skitters away from the unwelcome intrusion of light. Birds chirp with annoyance from the rafters. The floorboards are coated in pigeon droppings and shot through with holes. Hay was threshed in this area back when it was a functional barn.

This barn, like most of Minnesota's, came from a building boom that spanned from 1870 to 1925. Initially most were so-called Yankee barns, simple A-frame structures with three bays for storing and sorting grains. But as Minnesota's agriculture industry became dominated by dairies, the barns expanded to accommodate the feeding and milking of cows. Though most of these structures were thrown up by the farmers themselves, often with the help of surrounding families, the level of craftsmanship exceeds what many carpenters could manage today.

We step around to the rear of the Sugardale barn, where the cows used to be milked. The stanchions--metal frames that immobilized the cows--remain in place, but it's obvious that they haven't been put to use in quite some time. Various non-farm-related items--a Radio Flyer wagon, a golf bag--cover the floor. The overall impression is of a building biding its time until time and weather knock it to the ground.


Will Weaver is a fiction writer who teaches at Bemidji State University. His 1989 collection of short fiction, A Gravestone Made of Wheat & Other Stories, won the Minnesota Book Award and is currently being made into a film starring Ned Beatty and Alan Rickman. More recently, Weaver has focused on writing novels aimed at teenagers. His latest, Full Service, the tale of a sheltered Minnesota farm boy who takes his first job at a gas station, will be published in October by HarperCollins.

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