Barns are big in Wallowa County: Owners eye repurposing options

Kathleen Ellyn

Wallowa County Chieftain

Published on October 17, 2017 2:54PM

Kathleen Ellyn/ChieftainThe beautifully kept Triple Creek Ranch octogonal barn on Tucker Down Road in Joseph.

Kathleen Ellyn/ChieftainThe beautifully kept Triple Creek Ranch octogonal barn on Tucker Down Road in Joseph.

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It’s difficult to level a camera in any direction in Wallowa County without snapping an award-worthy picture. And common targets of many shutterbugs are the county’s historic barns.

Restore Oregon and the Heritage Barn Taskforce have cataloged 11,400 barns built prior to 1960 in the state and barns of that age are considered worth preserving. But Wallowa County has something even more exciting –– a surplus of barns more than 100 years old and a population of barn owners who want to preserve them.

No surprise, then, that the Heritage Barn Workshop held in Union on Oct. 7 featured a capacity crowd (approximately 60) that included a large number of barn owners from Wallowa County.

Among them were Steve and Joella Arment of Lostine, Holly Akinson of Enterprise, Carolyn Pfeaster of Wallowa, Margie Hudson of Wallowa, and Dick and Jan Boucher. Ann Hayes, curator of the Wallowa County Museum, and Vicki Searles, director of Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce were also in attendance.

The group that gathered attracted the most barn-owners of any workshop yet conducted by Restore Oregon. Some of the barns were among the oldest yet considered for restoration with some built in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

Attendees learned how far gone is too far gone (you’d be surprised what can be resurrected), how to identify your barn’s architectural style so you can talk about it with craftsmen, how to plan a long-term restoration and even where funding might be found to help with restoration.

Dick and Jan Boucher were surprised at what they learned about the style of their barn and are now enthused about learning more — including more about their granary, which may be of even more historic interest.

“I think it may be the most interesting of the buildings,” said Jan. “I’m told it may have had a milling wheel called a Pelican wheel and that may still be buried down there in the mud. I don’t even know what a Pelican wheel is.”

“We’re interested in the barns in the county and seeing them preserved,” said Dick. “We’ve tried to keep our barn up, but we’re not in a position to think of (repurposing it as) a bed and breakfast or anything like that.”

Many barn owners have created wedding venues. A barn is often a repurpose rather than a returning-to-museum-quality project.

“We’re not trying to freeze something in amber,” said Peggy Moretti, Executive Director of Restore Oregon. “It’s about activity and more about moving forward than looking back.”

For that reason, barn owners are encouraged to look “outside the box” for ideas to preserve and repurpose their barns in ways that contribute to their bottom line. Some have had success turning their barns into venues for events, such as the Nancy Knoble’s Blue Barn Farm outside Joseph.

Others have put their barns back into agricultural use with a few interior modifications. The Bouchers removed the center rafters in their 1914 barn to allow a hay truck to back in some years ago.

They then installed cables and turnbuckles to help the new higher rafters do their job of holding the barn together. Now that they don’t use the barn for hay storage, they could return it to the original loft if they chose.

Though restoration work can be expensive, it is generally less costly than building a new barn. And many families choose to restore their barn in phases to limit initial outlay.

“Barns are pretty adaptable buildings,” said Aaron Smith, Heritage Farm Taskforce preservation carpenter. “Tight grain old growth Doug fir beams are not going to fail in our lifetime if they are kept dry.”

A preservation contractor can help barn owners create a prioritized list, which is also essential to keep bidders on task and on plan.

The preservation toolkit is available online at

Many barn owners also want to see the original architectural plans of their barn. Although the bulk of barns were designed by itinerant barn builders and architects, barn plans may also be standard Sears, Montgomery Wards, lumberyard plan services and Extension Offices plans, some of which can still be found.

Although all attendees were interested in funding sources, few were counting on grants, which is a good thing; other states support barn restoration with millions of dollars, Oregon has few and small grants available. Nevertheless, going after restoration money was explored and for those interested, and seeking partnerships with city or county programs was emphasized.

Lack of state and federal support will not deter most Eastern Oregon barn-owners, who were restoring their barns for their own reasons: historical value, pride of place, family pride, establishing a legacy or to put a valuable asset back in production as part of the farm.

“The benefits to the barn owner and the community are multiple,” said Peggy Moretti, Executive Director of Restore Oregon. “Not only do revitalized historical building attract heritage tourists, they are part of what makes a community livable and foster a sense of community and pride.”

In Wallowa County, barn owners are able to work with the same agricultural “tools” their grandparents used, maintaining their tie to their family history through their barns.

The workshop was presented by Restore Oregon in partnership with the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association, Oregon State University Extension, Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce, Wallowa County Grain Growers, and Baker County Tourism.

Information has been collected for the Wallowa County Barn Tour Book III to be published in 2018, and the Northeast Oregon Agritourism Committee of Eastern Oregon Visitors Association has submitted a grant to Travel Oregon to pay for the printing.


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