On an April day in 2004, my husband and I were headed north on M-66 and, when we neared Ionia, I looked for “the” big red barn, a landmark on the horizon. But this morning, a developer’s sign said the farm was for sale.
Our stop to ask for permission to photograph the barn turned into a four-year quest to save the barn and other buildings. Keith Benedict had refused offers to sell, but urban sprawl was advancing like an oil-slick on sparkling water. Wal*Mart Corporation was already in negotiation to buy a portion of the farm, including the 1922 barn.
Mr. Benedict showed me around the farm with its huge barn, century-old corn crib, timber-frame farmhouse, wood-frame machine shed, and two additional homes. The farmstead area of the 197-acre farm featured tall evergreens, catalpa trees, and flower gardens. He explained that it was too late to add a “condition of sale” clause to an agreement which would require the purchaser to save the buildings. What ensued was a journey into community politics, corporate practices, and collaborative perseverance. But it was also a journey into the certainty that people working together can make a difference. While at the farm, one day, Mr. Benedict’s young grandson turned asked, “Why are you doing this, Barn Lady?” to which I replied, “So children like you will have a chance to see how wonderful barns are.” The name has stayed.
The Benedict Barn was not a pegged barn but its architecture was unique as was its outward appearance with two tiny dormers and white-framed windows gracing the wing. Mr. Benedict told me there had been another big red barn where this one stood. It had just been finished when it was struck by lightning. Thousands of bales of hay and straw could be stacked to the peak of the 40’x108’gambrel barn and its 50’x60’ wing, both of which were 60’ to the peak. Eight interior bins stored hundreds of bushels of grain.
Serendipitously, Central Michigan University’s television station did a documentary on the plight of Michigan barns and included the Benedict Barn. Calls and emails poured in with ideas for saving the barn, the best of which was that Wal*Mart should keep the barn and farmhouse where they stood and convert them to a gardening center and coffee shop, neatly set beside the mature trees. Ideas also included making the barn a township hall, restaurant, or, moving it to become part of a greenhouse operation, a community center, a storage facility for antiques, a museum to house antique cars, a preschool or part of the Ionia Free Fair.
Wal*Mart said it could not deviate from standard supercenter designs and went back on its offer to fund the entire project. Few takers remained. It was the two top officials of the National Trust for Historic Preservation who became my greatest allies and it is largely because of their efforts, that Wal*Mart finally agreed to put $150,000 toward dismantling and relocation. I was given the responsibility of choosing who would get the barn but instead, formed a committee of representatives from the Michigan Barn Preservation Network, the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, and the National Barn Alliance. I did not vote.
When the committee reviewed proposals to save the Benedict Barn, there were three: rebuild the entire barn to become a big red school; reuse wood to create a much smaller barn, a blacksmith shop and a storage building on the grounds of a historical village; or reuse the wood to build a smaller barn at a YMCA in Augusta, Michigan. At the 11th hour, the school proposal was withdrawn because of merger negotiations or it would have been chosen. The committee selected the YMCA proposal and today a 30’x80’ gambrel barn is used for a multitude of events.
The most important lessons to come from these years are that good can come when people work together for worthy purpose and that when you truly believe in something you must give it your best effort and not listen to the naysayers.
In the best of all worlds, we would reuse exploited land before ever devouring productive farms and fields. As consumers we would have far fewer wants and be more earth-friendly. And in that world, a big red barn would still stand, a box store would not be needed, and future generations would see beauty.
Jan Corey Arnett©2011
The beautiful barn is 40' x 108' with a 50' x 60' wing. It was dismantled, moved and reconstructed on a new location. The barn is being used for fundraisers, weddings, meetings, and a range of camp activities.
“You know when you’re nearly to Ionia when you see the big red barn.”
The claw of death was stopped, but not before it had eaten a beautiful machine shed that could easily have been saved and relocated.
...a barn contractor who worked in the late autumn rains and chill to get the barn dismantled and moved in the time...
"Once there were green fields...." now there is pavement, lights, traffic, and noise.
Where once there was a yard and a garden beside the original Benedict farmhouse, now there is pavement and a fast food restaurant. Is it any wonder Michigan has an obesity problem?
...today a 30’x80’ gambrel barn stands proudly at the YMCA where teens could barely wait for the concrete floor to be completely dry before they held a square dance...