City folk may believe that barns are an eternal staple of rural life. But in truth, barn razings have replaced barn raisings. Historians estimate that at least one barn has perished for each of the 3.8 million American farms that have disappeared this century.
It seems modern agriculture has little use for the wood or stone structures. Old tasks like threshing wheat are now done by combines in the field. Those giant machines don't fit inside barns, nor do today's large livestock herds. As big, mechanized farms have been stitched together from old fields, barns often have been the first casualties.
The Smithsonian Institution and the National Building Museum hope to reconnect America with its heritage. "Barn Again: Celebrating an American Icon," a traveling exhibit featuring models, photos, and pieces of old barns, is now beginning a two-year, eight-state tour.
The cultural importance of barns extends beyond rural areas. As Americans moved into cities, barns gradually became a nostalgic icon. Today, barn imagery graces milk cartons and wallpaper, symbolizing nonurban virtues like wholesomeness and dependability. Barns may disappear from the landscape but never entirely from America's consciousness. The exhibit opens this month in Elberta, Ala.; Grants Pass, Ore.; St. Paris, Ohio; and Lacon, Ill., and travels to other towns through November. In 1998, it tours West Virginia, Georgia, Missouri, and Utah. For details, call (202) 357-2700.