WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — What started as a project to document the state's barns — from the leaning to the gleaming — turned into a tourist attraction, complete with a nifty app.
In 2004, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation set out to catalog all barns throughout the state. With 8,400 barns already photographed and noted, the project continues. Organizers wondered what to do with the rich information they had collected. A book? A calendar? Borrowing from the popular Connecticut Wine Trail, which links and promotes vineyards, they settled on a Connecticut Barns Trail.
The trail is seven self-guided regional tours, which touch upon a small sample of the thousands of barns in the project database. The Northwest Highlands trail starts and ends at the Bellamy-Ferriday House in Bethlehem, with stops including the Bunnell Farm in Litchfield, the Wildlife Foundation in Goshen, Old Farm Nursery in Salisbury and Hunt Hill Farm and Sullivan Farm in New Milford. A matching grant from the Department of Culture and Tourism helped fund the endeavor.
"Barns matter because they are disappearing in huge numbers," said Rachel Carley, a Litchfield-based architectural historian who was a consultant for the Barns Trail. "Barns are the physical representation of a vital part of Connecticut history. Many say Connecticut was an industrial state, but we were a major producer of agricultural products right up until the 1960s, especially in dairy and tobacco and going back to the Colonial period."
Orchards, specialty shops, museums and restaurants are highlighted along the routes. Paper copies of the Barns Trail can be found at visitor centers throughout the state. The barns fall into two categories, public and private. A public barn might be a farmstand or museum in a former barn that can be visited; private ones can be admired from the road.
Many featured barns are what one would expect — bright red with a pitched roof and metal weathervane on top. Others are those that often go overlooked — perhaps a barn converted into a garage.
Interest in barns has been growing nationally as states scramble to save or at least document the relics of the agricultural past before they disappear or become too expensive to preserve. Many states, including Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire and Vermont, have conducted barn surveys.
In 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted its first census on barns built before 1960 and found there were more than 664,000 of them. Texas has the most, with more than 51,000. Charlotte Hitchcock, a researcher with the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, said she believes there are about 10,000 barns in Connecticut.
"They are the physical and cultural representation of our heritage and when you lose them, you lose a piece of that heritage," Carley said. "And from an architectural standpoint, their layouts and structural elements are essays in form follows function. Any time there was an advance in technology, like a change in how farmers milked or fed their herd, it would be reflected in the barns."
And it wasn't just the dairy and tobacco industries in Connecticut. There were barns for onions, potatoes, mushrooms — and something called a corn crib, or a well-ventilated structure set high above the ground and with overhanging eaves to prevent rain from leaking inside.
Connecticut also was home to many gentleman's barns — those designed by famous architects and part of estates that married the lavish country estate with the usefulness of a working farm, often a source of dairy products for the family's country and city homes.
"During the Victorian era, all of the major industrialists in Waterbury and Naugatuck went to Middlebury to establish major estates with dairy farms," Carley said.
The number of 18th century barns still standing in the state are dwarfed by the number of homes from that era that remain, Carley said.
"They (barns) would be replaced by something that seemed more efficient to a farmer or they would be absorbed into newer complexes or in more recent years, they are victims of the dying farming industry," she said. "And more of them have become vacant because Connecticut doesn't have zoning rules that are conducive to using barns ... so barns go empty and can be victim of benign neglect or fires or vandalism."
Despite the iconic stature of barns throughout America and the sense of nostalgia that is often associated with them, Hitchcock said she was surprised by the enthusiasm drummed up by the barn database project.
"It developed its own life," said Hitchcock. "Sometimes, people think of historic preservation as this dry area, and people don't think their grandfather's dairy barn from 1940 is historic, but it is."
At www.connecticutbarns.org, visitors can choose any town from the state and see a list of all barns there, along with a photo, a bit of historical information and the exact address. The Connecticut Trust held meetings in nearly every town in the state to enlist community members to help assemble barn listings from their towns. About 400 volunteers traveled around to take pictures of public and private barns.
"You are allowed to take a picture of anything from the public way," explained Hitchcock. "I did a lot of surveying and you'd be standing out in front of a house taking a picture and the owner would come out and say, 'Can I help you?' and after we explained the project, they'd get friendly and you'd end up inside and spending a lot more time looking at their old farm tools than you intended."
Along the way, perceptions also changed.
"We thought agriculture was this dying field in Connecticut, but there are still all these local farms producing organic vegetables and grass-fed beef," she said.
The Connecticut Trust is in the process of nominating 200 of the barns to the State Register of Historic Places.
"We picked the ones that were the most interesting and significant and of course, the owner had to be willing, and we took lots of pictures and measurements," Hitchcock said. "It doesn't give (the barn owners) protection, but it gives them recognition."
It could also earn them tax incentives toward restoration and renovation. And the Barns Trail may get people out "shopping at farmers markets and going to orchards and other stops along the trail," Hitchcock said