The Barnstormer

Bill Kelley

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.

"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.

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.

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.

Ohman notes that the remaining farms in the area are engaged in a losing battle with these boxy new estate homes. "Something will eventually win and what will win is suburbia," he says. "We don't necessarily want to live in the country, but we want the country hanging on the wall."

Doug Ohman reads at 7:00 p.m. Tuesday, June 21 at Barnes & Noble Eden Prairie, 952.944.5683; and with Will Weaver at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 29 at Bound To Be Read, 651.646.2665.

Twin Cities Reader Summer Books Issue:

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

The Dirty Parts Romance Novelist Connie Brockway Wants to Know Why People Can't Look Past the Unbound Bosom and Love-Swollen Member

Fixing a Leak What happens when a reporter doesn't keep his word to an anonymous source?

From the Beauty Parlor to the Barricades! Her Warmhearted Characters Feel Good About the World. Lorna Landvik Doesn't.

Love and Marriage To Most of Us, Nothing Sounds Worse Than a Loveless Marriage. According to Stephanie Coontz, It Wasn't Always That Way.

Life of Johnson It wasn't fun bringing up the rump of the avant-garde. B.S. Johnson felt compelled to do it anyway.

Review: Joe Coomer: Pocketful of Names

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