Disappearing Barns of the Palouse

May 15th, 2017 by Chip Phillips

As you probably know, I’ve been shooting the Palouse region of Washington and Idaho for many years. I’m so fortunate to live in nearby Spokane; I spend countless days of the year driving the winding backroads and exploring the hidden sides of the Palouse, shooting and teaching workshops. Over the years one thing I’ve loved to photograph is the old, weathered barns throughout the region. These classic structures seem to capture a collective memory of the American countryside; to tap into a romantic nostalgia. However, once every few years or so, a barn disappears. Of course, some of these century-old structures are simply going to collapse on their own. Others, however, look to me to be quite structurally sound. Although I can’t say for certain what would make a farmer or land owner tear down a barn, one thing may be partially responsible: salvaged barn wood is trendy.

A recent NPR report discusses the trend of using reclaimed or salvaged barn wood in construction–ceiling beams, walls, dining room tables, or brewpub bars–and how it’s helping barn owners make money and how it’s changing the rural landscape. An old, rickety barn may be nothing to a farmer, but by selling it to a barn-wood reclaiming company, could clear the land and make a good amount of money. The reclaiming company then cleans the wood, removes the nails, and sells it for a pretty penny to home builders and designers.

I love the idea of “upcycling” and reusing old, unwanted materials in cool new ways. I totally support ideas that keep materials out of landfills and save natural resources. And of course I support farmers being able to make money from something they don’t need or use anymore. But as a photographer, I mourn the loss of these beautiful old barns. Some of these structures are truly historic, dating back a hundred years or more. Photographs of old barns inspire the viewer to daydream about history: of the barn, of the farmers, our own family histories. The architecture of the structures often have regional uniqueness: old barns in Wyoming look different from old barns in Oregon, for example. I worry that this reclaimed barn-wood trend may take away from us something that can’t be replaced.

None of the barns in the previous images exist anymore.  What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!

  • Earl Robicheaux

    Hi: I, like you am a big fan of historic barns and am presently in Central PA, heading to Bucks County for some Hex and other early German barns. Without a doubt, changes in the needs of farmers has caused a lot of the old barns through the US to disappear and one of the advantages of the advancement of photography is to preserver the images of these vanishing old relics of the early settlement of the US, whether they be German Barns, Hex barns, Mail Pouch Barns, Radio City Barns, Western barns, etc. The good news is that many states, like Washington have active historical societies working to help farmers with funding to restore and preserve these relics. Under the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historical Preservation (http://www.dahp.wa.gov/heritage-barn-register) they continue to work on saving some of these barns. Personally, in my travels, I think Washington State has one of the better unified organizations in this endeavor.

  • eyeguy99

    That first shot is stunning Chip…glad you were able to capture it before the structure disappeared.

  • trooper seven

    There is another, less palatable disappearing barns answer. They are being torn down by owners because of potential liability from tresspassers, or fenced in heavily enough to be invisible from road. I’ve talked to people who live in the Washington State backcountry who say this when I ask about photographic opportunities. Was shown one site where owner tore down barn. Another with a very picturesque abandoned house now completely blocked from road vision by heavy metal fencing. It can be seen AFTER it has been driven past, but only in the rear view mirror. Lots of this happening in old barn country. Frankly, too many amateur photograsphers who climb and intrude.

    • dave

      Are you saying that if you’re a professional photographer it is okay to climb and intrude? What I think needs to be said is that there are too many people who are not exercising common sense and who are going above and beyond to get “the shot”. And unfortunately it is a direct side effect of social media…one idiot climbs a fence or ventures up a gorge to a waterfall that is closed by rangers to “get the shot”, posts it on FB or instagram and then you get 100 or 1000 irresponsible people trying to do the same. Don’t know the answer….maybe education but unfortunately I don’t see it changing any time soon.

      • trooper seven

        No, I was very careful not to say professional photographer. Those pros I know or have heard of who lead Palouse tours are very careful to talk to the owner of any fenced or isolated property and make sure they and their tours have permission to do whatever is arranged. But there are a lot of amateurs who don’t seem to exercise sense, common or uncommon. Too manhy. To a point where they climb inside derelict rotten buildings which could easily collapse. smh