This is a large, lovely coffee table book that will keep your guests drinking their coffee long after you’ve called them to dinner as they thumb through the remarkable photographs and pore over the evocative text of a collection that takes us to Illinois and back to our shared heritage as a nation of farmers.
Larry Kanfer is a photographic artist and his wife, Alaina, is a writer who shares his vision. Together they have created a book that is almost as big as its subject: barns. Illinois is a state that long depended on farming, its productive fields forming the patchwork background for a number of small cities and many little agricultural hamlets. Family farming kept the barn as its hub, the place where production was most obvious but where other functions such as sociable gatherings could take place as the large and often handsome buildings evolved.
In McDonough County, the sparkling barns could pass for houses, with notable paint schemes that include greens and yellows and gabled roofs with steeple tops that remind us of rural churches. The Gindler family barn in Madison County charms with its hand-painted description of
"how to trim pigs’ ears, their system for remembering which sow was a particular pig’s mother, and the record of a pig’s birth order in the litter." The round barn, popularized by the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, was built with a silo in the middle; the lack of corners prevented evil spirits from hiding within. The Mel-Est barn in Will County proclaims a family love story, with the names of the patriarch and matriarch, Melvin and Esther, engraved in roof tiles of white on green: “their four sons watched Esther painstakingly lay out white shingles in the haymow so the pattern would be perfect.” Later the barn’s distinctive roof became a navigation point for pilots heading to O’Hare Airport.
The photographs capture the geometry of barns, and their color. They reflect the lonely feeling called forth by an abandoned barn wherever it is encountered, and sweeping aerial views highlight the isolation of the family farm, an encampment of structures dotted in the center of a vast lonely panorama of outlying fields. Tim Larson Dingus discovered that an old barn in the middle of a golf course had been built by his grandfather, so he launched a successful campaign to save the barn.
With the passage of time and the loss of farming as a profitable industry, barns change their purpose but remain a distinctive part of the landscape. Pat and Garrie Burr converted their old barn to a shelter for rescued animals. A cinderblock barn became part of a winery; a family farm no longer in need of great quantities of hay gave over space for a basketball practice court for 21 grandchildren. One barn became a weekly social hall, the venue for local barn dances.
The lovely sixteen-sided Teeple barn was listed on the National Register of Historic Places until it collapsed under heavy winds. Fortunately, Kanfer’s photos of the exterior, interior and some important architectural details survive to tell its tale. Barns in the snow, waiting for dark storm clouds to pass over, barns in view of fallow fields or at the height of the growing season, all are captured by the camera’s eye.
One poignant story is that of Dottie Williams, who “has lived in twenty different houses over her lifetime. She moved to each new house three of the foundation stones from her grandfather’s barn.” She says, “This is my grandfather. All I have left are these memories.” Thanks to the work of Larry and Alaina Kanfer, farming families and others now have a book in which such memories are stored.