Connecticut's New Historic Barns Trail Showcases Agricultural Treasures
Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation
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Bill Hill Road cuts a scenic swath through the countryside in Lyme, through tall trees sheltering buttoned-up farmhouses, until it opens up to reveal wide, canvas-worthy pastures dotted with cows, and miles of low stone walls.
The barns at Ashlawn Farm, on the left if you’re driving north, serve as a reminder that people worked this tranquil land for centuries . . . long before the shoreline became chi chi, shoppers swarmed the nearby outlets and casino traffic consistently clogged I-95.
Architectural historian Todd Levine is sitting in his red Jeep in front of a tiny café at Ashlawn, in what used to be the milk house attached to the main barn, back when the place was a working dairy farm. An unrelenting summer rain pelts his windshield while he sips hot coffee from the café, and waxes poetic on the appeal of barns.
“People love barns, and sometimes they don’t even know why,” he says, bringing the cup to his lips, his eyes fixed on the red buildings with white trim in front of him. He smiles. “It’s a romantic notion, I think, something that reminds us of a much simpler time.”
It’s that attraction, that along with “the purity of the buildings,” Levine says, that put Ashlawn, along with dozens of barns statewide, on the map: the Connecticut Barns Trail map, to be precise.
Levine, with Helen Higgins, executive director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, was instrumental in developing what he believes is the nation’s first barn trail. It came to fruition as part of the “Historic Barns of Connecticut” project, a statewide survey. Barns large and small were documented by hundreds of community volunteers who traversed the state, clipboards and cameras in tow. The project was funded by the State Historic Preservation Office, the Connecticut Office of Tourism and private donations. “It’s a good thing people love barns,” says Levine. “I can’t imagine we would have had such an enthusiastic response if we wanted to count, say, industrial buildings.”
Our enchantment with barns is deep-seated; even those in disrepair (or perhaps especially when they have seen better days) remind us of the vital role they played in our state’s history and agrarian culture. They epitomize the architectural tenet of form following function. They were meaningful buildings, says Levine. “People gathered in them to celebrate, couples were married in them, and they were by far the most important tool on the farm.”
As the rest of the world changed, the barn remained a constant.
The painter Eric Sloane, a prolific master of landscape realism, fell in love with Connecticut’s barns in the mid-’50s (he lived in Warren until his death in 1985). He captured their permanence in his art and in his folksy, illustrated history, Eric Sloane’s An Age of Barns. He wrote: “I once bought an abandoned farm with the intention of remodeling the barn and reviving the farmyard. Although the house had been built in pioneer days, there was a sense of its having been lived in during a more recent yesterday, for at least a dozen families had left their marks. The barn, on the other hand, gave the feeling of never having been changed since the time it was raised.”
Markham Starr, a photographer who lives in North Stonington, spent the better part of a year crisscrossing the state, shooting barns he found particularly appealing. His book, Barns of Connecticut, featuring more than 100 color photographs, will be published by Wesleyan University Press in the fall.
Starr found most of his subjects through the historic barns site, he says, “but spent a lot of time driving down country roads discovering even more.” As an artist he appreciates the barn’s plainness and lack of adornment. “They’re very simple looking structures, but they’re perfect to a T,” he says. “They’re both utilitarian and elegant—and they’ve been that way for hundreds of years.”