The Barnstormer

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

Weaver says that he was initially skeptical when the Minnesota Historical Society approached him about the Barns of Minnesota project. "I said, you're the Historical Society, you deal in facts," Weaver recalls. "I'm a fiction writer, which means I deal with lies and exaggerations."

But after viewing slides of Ohman's work, Weaver was inspired. "Seeing these barns catapulted me back to my growing up on a small farm in north central Minnesota," he says. "These photographs opened up windows and doors in my memory." He hit upon the idea of creating a fictional narrative to accompany the photographs, and eventually convinced the project's editor to green-light the concept. "I had the idea that I could carry a lot of history on the back of narrative," he says.

The novella tells the story of the fictional Anderson clan, a young family who move from Iowa to north central Minnesota in 1924 with 10 cows and plans to start a dairy farm. In spare prose, redolent with the details of early 20th-century farming life, Weaver lays out the Anderson clan's hardscrabble existence through the decades. At the center of the narrative is a wooden dairy barn, constructed by Emmet Anderson in the mid-'20s with the help of neighbors. After decades of service it collapses one windy night in May of 1999, when Emmet is well into his 90s, marking the symbolic end of the family farm.

Bill Kelley

The risk in such an endeavor is that the story will devolve into cheap nostalgia for simple country days that never were--the literary equivalent of those Thomas Kinkade landscapes that suburbanites snap up for thousands of dollars at malls across America. Weaver, though a warmhearted writer, avoids such sentimentality. His characters are stoic and hardworking, but they're also imbued with the kinds of grotesque flaws that are true of people in any era.

Shortly after the Andersons' barn is built, Emmet discovers a man cowering amid the dairy cows one morning. It turns out to be Ralph LeVeq, the mentally retarded brother-in-law of one of the neighboring farmers. It eventually becomes clear that Ralph has run away because his sister's drunken husband physically and mentally abuses him. Ralph eventually moves in with the Andersons, becoming the farm's handyman.

Weaver says that he spent a month talking to people about their barn memories in order to realistically capture the minutiae of farm life. He relied on the experience of some colleagues at Bemidji State, for instance, to evoke the sound of an old barn collapsing. The couple had recently witnessed the felling of one such structure on their property. "How many of us have ever heard that?" Weaver asks. "It's a very small demographic."

 

Heading north from the Sugardale barn, Ohman and I cross from Rice to Scott County. Ohman guides his pickup truck across a mixture of dirt and asphalt county roads. Most of the land this far north has been parceled up into residential plots and hobby farms, but we still pass the occasional functioning barn. "If you look at that barn," Ohman says, gesturing to an aged wooden structure on the west side of the road, "it's almost identical to the Sugardale barn. It was probably built by the same guy."

On the north side of County Road 2, Ohman spots the structure that we're looking for. It's an immaculately maintained white round barn built in 1913, once part of a thriving dairy farm. The original wood siding has been replaced with aluminum, but the structure retains a cedar shake roof. As we pull up to the main farmhouse, the matriarch of the farm is doing some yard work. Ohman has never met the woman before--he dealt with her son on previous visits--but she seems delighted to receive a copy of the book. She has lived on the farmstead for five decades, she says. Her husband died five years ago, but her son's family still maintains a home on the property and raises beef cattle.

We take a peek inside the round barn. It's a beautiful structure, painstakingly pieced together from hundreds of pine boards. The milking stanchions remain, but it's obvious that this barn, too, is used primarily as a storage shed. Scattered about the two-story structure are a grill, a bicycle, a picnic table, a board game. Ohman explains that round barns were attractive to some farmers because they required less manpower to build than other structures did.

"The difficulty was the engineering," he says. "You had to know what you were doing." He notes that most such experimental edifices were built between 1890 and 1925, prior to the onset of the Depression. "You weren't experimenting with anything in the Depression," he says. "You were just surviving."

I pull myself up a ladder and peek into the loft. Piles of hay are scattered about the wooden floor. The roof is an intricate lattice of pine boards curving upward. It reminds me of one of those "Wall of Death" motorcycle bowls.

As we make our way back toward the Twin Cities, we pass by a housing development going up at the intersection of county roads 27 and 8. Piles of loose earth dot the landscape. Bulldozers and forklifts crawl about. The scene is both violent and nondescript; it looks exactly like any of a half-dozen other developments you might see in Scott County--the 12th fastest-growing county in the country.

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