By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Old barns fade from farmland

Like castles in Spain, Yamhill County’s grand old barns — and those all across America’s farmlands — once majestically silhouetted the skyline.

Sadly, those kingly old barns are becoming fewer.

Perhaps the barn most missed by local golfers is the Michelbook barn: a dairy barn, before becoming the clubhouse for Michelbook Country Club.

Almost 40 years ago, on Nov. 6, 1973, that fine old barn was completely destroyed by fire, except for the pro shop.

As a “working” barn, it was part of the dairy and turkey farm of Francis and Christie Michelbook, whose acreage bordered the northwest corner of the outskirts of McMinnville.

Then a group of McMinnvillans, who thought it was time McMinnville had a golf course, sought that site as a course. An option for the barn and surrounding acreage was signed Feb. 2, 1962.

With the help of an architect, the two-story dairy barn became a splendid clubhouse. And a capacious clubhouse it was: two stories, each with 5,000 square feet of space. The cows were replaced by locker rooms, kitchen, dining room, club shop, pro shop. The second floor featured a huge banquet room and large dance floor. Something else was added that the cows hadn’t known: a Bird Cage Lounge on the ground floor.

But then the handsome barn was lost, joining the passing of many of its type.

In part, these old structures are being replaced by quonset huts of plywood or galvanized steel as more modern versions. Progress has brought changes. With the advent of tractors and increased mechanization, hay and straw can more readily be stored outdoors.

And, assuredly, those big old wooden barns fllled with hay were vulnerable to fire. But, oh, what wonderful places they were: places for hens to hide nests, haylofts as the ultimate play place for kids, comfortable shelter for livestock, protective storage for equipment. But modern machinery has lessened the need for those old barns that often featured gambrel or hip roofs, for maximizing hayloft size — something dairy farmers especially needed.

Often, these landmark barns were painted red. One explanation was that ferric oxide, used to create red paint, was cheap and readily available. Further, it was said to be a preservative to help protect the structure.

Back when Oregon was a kid, its barns were sometimes made from timbers hewn on the farm — until sawmills came along.

When tired oxen began pulling covered wagons into Oregon Country, settlers sometimes prioritized putting up a barn before building a log shelter for the famiily.

One sad story is told about the immigrant who, before heading west, was advised that Oregon Country weather was so mild and benign it was not necessary to have shelter for animals, nor would it be necessary to feed them during the winter, thanks to abundant grass. The farmer opted to bring to Oregon his considerable number of horses.

Their first winter here was fierce — much snow and bitter cold.

A tent provided shelter for the family, but the horses were unprotected and the grass was covered with snow. They starved to death.

Barns have long protected livestock and hay. They’ve been around for centuries. The Coggeshall Grange Barn in Colchester, England, dendrochronologically dated 1237-1269, was originally part of the Cistercian monastery of Coggeshall.

The “Cultural Resources Inventory, Yamhill County,” compiled circa 1984 by Yamhill County Planning Department, notes that a handful of 1850s barns in Yamhill County still survived at that time and cited the Jeremiah Lamson barn and that of Solomon Allen. Some 50 barns are mentioned, in the Cultural Resources Inventory in conjunction with listings of county farms.

But probably Oregon’s blue-ribbon barn winner is the Peter French Round Barn, built circa 1880. That now-popular tourist attraction in Harney County was donated to the Oregon Historical Society by the Jenkins family. T.E. and R.J. Jenkins, longtime ranchers, used the barn for many years for grain and equipment storage. Vandalism and increasing theft occurred and, in 1967 they gifted the round barn and one and a half acres. A visitor center, now located nearby, contains a Jenkins’ Family “museum,” gifts, collectibles and western art.

Cattle baron Peter French used the round barn to train, during the winter, replacements for the some 3,000 head of horses and mules required on the more than 100,000 acres of land he controlled.

Don’t miss this barn when you’re touring southeastern Oregon. Its shape is somewhat like a paper umbrella. Some materials for this building — diameter 100 feet — also are unusual. Horse-drawn wagons hauled 250 tons of quarried native lava rock some eight miles for the round corral encircling the inside of the barn. The wall of this inner corral is 18 inches thick and has 14 windows. Between the inner stone corral and outer wooden walls is a 20-foot paddock. The center juniper pole of the barn is 35 feet high, and 12 unusually tall juniper poles support the conical roof that required 50,000 shingles for a reshingling job.

French reportedly built other round barns on his ranch, but they no longer exist. This remaining structure is said to be a tribute to French’s ingenuity and efficient livestock operation, but there have been other round barns in the world, such as the Thomas Ranck Round Barn in Fayette County, Ind., and the round log barn in the open air museum in Sanok, Poland.

Meanwhile, we do not as often see our “castles in Spain” — those big, old barns — silhouetted on our landscape.

Progress and modernity are to be welcomed. But sometimes, progress is sad.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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