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Monday, May 18, 2009

Why are barns painted red? or sometimes white? or green?

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Pullman Farm, Williamston

Driving home from the garden center on back roads the day before Mother's Day, sharing my tiny car space with a huge hanging basket of yellow and orange flowers for my mother-in-law, I must have taken a different turn than I have in the past.

Oh I love drifting along country roads. I'm happy to drive the same route to work and back every day. I get to watch farmers plant seed in black fields, then green rooster tails of corn rise in slow release, and windswept currents ripple through seas of bronze wheat. Horses bow their long noses as I pass. Honking geese fly in front of my windshield. Rainbows arc, sometimes in doubles. But the best country driving is on a Saturday with no destination, turning right or left where I haven't before. Like on the day before Mother's Day when I turned the Aveo onto Meech Road and drove past this white farm only to stop the car, turn around, go back, and take it in.



I was struck with the farm's simple cleanness. Even the sky was white. And then I wondered why they painted their barns white (or didn't paint, as the case might be).

The photo isn't crooked, the barn is.



Most Michigan barns are red, like the ones in the photo below in Six Lakes, which are "barn red" and also faded. The barns in the photos below those are painted Marilyn Monroe lipstick red. They're also newer.


true "barn red" barns in Six Lakes





Marilyn Monroe lipstick red barns. This is not an official barn color name, by the way.
















Ok they're not exactly the same shade of red. Maybe her lips are somewhere between the old barns and new ones.


So I did a little surfing and found some barn color history.

  • until the early 1700s barns in Europe and North America weren't painted but were treated with linseed oil
  • American barns got bigger than European ones - all those big hopes for big crops on big land, and preservation became more important
  • some farmer discovered he could mix skimmed milk, lime, and red ferrous oxide (plentiful farm rust) for a durable coating (later on they added linseed oil)
  • wealthier farmers even used the blood of slaughtered farm animals to color their "paint"; Native Americans had been using turkey blood added to egg whites and clay for red pigments (yeah, they called it "Indian Red")
  • milk paint (otherwise known as whitewash) - milk, lime and pigment - goes back to earliest cave paintings and King Tut's tomb and didn't diminish until paint was mass produced in the 1800s
  • 1868 was the year the first metal paint can was patented, the kind with the tight-fitting lid you have to open with a screwdriver
  • so why white? some think white barns started with dairy farms in Pennsylvania and Ohio to give that clean sanitary feel: white barns = white, pure milk; like I said when I saw the Meech Road farm, it felt clean

I'm afraid I have no answer to the question Why is your barn green? I'm guessing it has something to do with the reason farmers do a lot of things they do: there was a special on green paint and it was very cheap.



our green barn and outbuildings shot in 2007;
we "bought the farm" in November 2003;
have you heard the idiom "bought the farm"?
phrases.org says it means
"To die, particularly in an accident or military action.
the origin might be:

. . . the idea that when a plane crashed on a farm the farmer may sue the government for compensation. That would generate a large enough amount of money to pay off the farm's mortgage. Hence, the pilot paid for the farm with his life."


I don't know what year the barns on this property were painted green. We inherited this old aerial photo of the place with an inscription on the back that in 1957 it was the property of one Joe Hutchison, and the barns and house were white. (Glad this pilot didn't "buy the farm" so we could have this old photo.)



this shot was taken the year after I was born, but I didn't live here then;
I lived about 40 minutes drive from here, toddling around my house in town)















closeup of our farm in 1957

Sadly, barns like ours - built about 100 years ago - are deteriorating, and it takes a lot of moolah and hard work to repair and maintain them. Many have fallen flat. I hate to see barns sided with metal or vinyl - I don't want to lose the open space between boards that allows light and wind through for one thing - but using more durable siding than wood is often the solution to keeping them alive. Don has done some work - with our nephew Paul - to support the once sagging corner of our barn. It will take a lot more to restore it. We'd like to find a barn preservation grant, but even if we do find a way to fund our big green barn's restoration, we'll respect its old bones.







I gathered information from GRIT, How Stuff Works, milkpaint.com and The Barn Journal.

57 comments:

Anet said...

I really like your green barn. It's very different!
Barns are wonderful structures, full of history.
I have fond memories of my uncle's barn in upper MI. Jumping off the loft into the hay with my crazy country cousins:) Being a city girl, I also remember the chicken's were sort of mean and would chase us.

Jill of All Trades said...

Great pics! I love, love, love old barns. They have such character.

Annie said...

I love old barns, in Finland too. Too bad there's not so many of those old ones left.

And I try to buy organic food as much as possible!

Great photos again.

kanmuri said...

milkpaint sounds like it would be... stinky.

I love the writing behind the picture. It seems that in the days, everyone used script letters...

Your barn is nice. I hope you can preserve its original form :D

Kat said...

Love your green barn. I hope it can be saved. It does take a lot of work to keep it up. Wish we had one like that.
Also, the barn that needs painting with the beautiful blooming tree is wonderful. Nice shot.

laura said...

What an interesting question! I think you're right about the white. I wonder if red had some appeal because of the way it stands out? Or is that just the painter in me thinking of red-green complements?
YOUR green barn is a lovely shade--blue-green against yellow-green grass: perfect.
Love the aerial photo too!

Judy said...

Awesome post! We too love our barns in Iowa. My mother is a member of the Iowa Barn Foundation which raises money to help restore old barns. I love the color of your barn! Thanks for the great pictures.

PurestGreen said...

I've long since dreamed of living in a restored barn. This post has made it so much worse...

NJ said...

I really liked all your snowy pictures but I have to say I love the green ones. We have barns here that are an engineering miracle. Several parts of them seem to still be standing with absolutely not support left!

Susan said...

Ruthie, your barn is beautiful in it's coat of green! And a beautiful barn, or even a not-so-beautiful one, is a work of art.

Ohio celebrated it's bicentennial in 2003 in one way by having an artist paint the logo on a barn in each of the 88 counties. Of course he started a few years before. Here is the link to my home county barn. In fact, the farm was my stepdad's homestead. It had passed out of the family's hands by this time.

http://www.ohiobarns.com/ohbarns/obicbarlaw.html

dutchbaby said...

I love this post. Amazing facts, all of them! My sister and brother-in-law had a farm in Oregon for four years. They had a huge red barn, complete with barn owls. Replacing the roof was astronomically expensive. I hope you land a grant for preserving yours!

m good said...

Wonderful article. I have The Ville, a blog for the Fowlerville area, and if you don't mind, I am going to link from my blog to this article. I am sure there are many people that would find this very interesting. Thanks for taking time to research the reasons for the colors. :) M

Barry said...

I loved the photos of the internal architecture of the barns. There is a grace and joy in seeing the intelligence with which they were put together--no matter what color they are.

ds said...

Barn...the very word is evocative: part playground, part storage area, part home (for livestock), part office (dairy). These are wonderful pictures. Love your green barn--it 'blends.'

Lisa A said...

In Kentucky they have black barns.

Esther Garvi said...

I love the idea of preserving the old!

In Sweden, most barns are red by the way, because of the copper mines in the middle of the country. Most remain in wood but some metal walls are coming up too.

Here in Niger, there are granaries.

Bob Johnson said...

Lol Ruth you are too funny. You are so lucky to get those old shots of your property, very Cool. My fav is the crocked barn,lol, I mean crooked barn and tree.

Lover of Life said...

Great post. I always enjoyed driving around when we lived in Minnesota just to see the old barns.

shicat said...

Some post,some barn,some homestead! Just love the black and white photo. It must be wonderful to wander the roads and watch the seasons unfold,just so rich. Can't you just imagine a farmer on a warm summer day preparing to paint the barn. How many people,what would that photo look like?
Everything in you post was just so interesting, bought the farm,paint mixtures.

You must love all of the open space,freedom to breathe.

Reminds me of Jane Smiley's book One Thousand Acres.

renaye said...

i think i would actually walk along those country road to enjoy the scenery!

Ruth said...

Anet, our green barn helps when telling people how to get to our place. It's the only one around.

Sounds fun playing in the hay, but I always get nervous about pitchforks.

Ruth said...

Jill - all those years of adding things here and there from the scrap pile.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Annie. I wish the small farms would survive all over the world. I wonder if you have red barns in Finland.

I just heard that it's important to eat locally grown produce for avoiding allergies.

Ruth said...

Kanmuri, you're right, I didn't think of that about stinky milk.

I like that writing too. I think people from that generation had nicer handwriting. We don't work at it so much now. My mom had beautiful writing, but then again my daughter does too - very artistic.

Ruth said...

Hi, Kat. I have tried to figure out what it takes to make an unpainted building look good. I think a pink-blooming bush helps.

Ruth said...

Laura, I didn't write much about the why of red barns. I read some - mostly speculation.

How Stuff Works said:

Regardless of how the farmer tinted his paint, having a red barn became a fashionable thing. They were a sharp contrast to the traditional white farmhouse.

"As European settlers crossed over to America, they brought with them the tradition of red barns. In the mid to late 1800s, as paints began to be produced with chemical pigments, red paint was the most inexpensive to buy. Red was the color of favor until whitewash became cheaper, at which point white barns began to spring up."

Ruth said...

How great that your mom does that, Judy!

Ruth said...

PurestGreen, I can see that appeal. The open timbers above your head make for great head space.

Ruth said...

NJ, ha, that's true - I also wonder how a barn that looks like it needs one slight breeze to knock it over stands for years. Before Don shored up ours, it looked pretty crooked.

Ruth said...

That's quite wonderful, Susie!

As for not-so-beautiful barns being beautiful, I wonder sometimes if I take pleasure in other people's decay, when I wouldn't in my own. Reminds me of a photographer I once read who cautioned against taking photos of "street urchins" in foreign cities when you wipe off the dirty faces of your own children before photographing them. The point being, I guess, that what we find photogenic as a tourist is not always what we value at home. So lighten up on both sides. Cool, I think.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Dutchbaby. I've yet to see an owl in the flesh (in the feather, I guess). We hear them sometimes.

Ruth said...

That's nice, m good, of course I don't mind.

Ruth said...

Beautifully said, Barry.

photowannabe said...

Utterly fascinating Ruth. I guess that's why I love coming here, its a peek into another world. Your series of pictures are wonderful. The old rough barn with the Redbud in bloom and the tiny splashes of brilliant green in the eves is one of my favorites but then I look at the next one and it is the favorite until I look at another....they are all my favorites. Love the old peeling timbers and lightbulb of the last one too. Ok, enough gushing for one comment. (:0)

Ruth said...

DS, you have your own special memories of barns and farms.

I would love to add "studio" to the barn - there is one level where the light comes in and it would be a great open space for an artist.

Ruth said...

True, Lisa A! Oh and they are a rich sight.

You have a very sweet blog, my heart melted there.

Ruth said...

Esther, we have copper mines in Michigan too. I don't know if anyone used copper to tint paint.

I imagine that in Niger metal is used for granaries, the climate is so very different, and also perhaps wood is scarce.

Ruth said...

You are so clever, Bob, it is a crocked barn ees true.

Ruth said...

L o L, my friend Gayla just got a publisher for her book about her family's Minnesota farm. I can't wait to read the history in it when it's published.

Ruth said...

I haven't read that, Cathy, but I keep hearing about it.

You mention freedom to breathe - in the barn. It's the season now when I like to go and sit on the second floor and look out a big window to the back. The wind whips from back to front - or vice versa - and it's heaven.

Ruth said...

Good idea, Renaye. Some roads are busier than others, and I wouldn't walk on those.

Montag said...

What extraordinary buildings.
Thank you for your inspiration.

Susan said...

Ruthie, you said, "Reminds me of a photographer I once read who cautioned against taking photos of "street urchins" in foreign cities when you wipe off the dirty faces of your own children before photographing them."

That is such a profound statement! Something I never really thought about before, and so true. I won't forget it.

I meant to tell you before how beautiful the crabapple tree is in front of the unpainted barn. Wonderful juxtaposition!

VaNeSsA said...

Oh Ruth! Another beautiful post that makes me ache for the Country. (The real Country, not the millions of acres of wild, chilly (or frigid, if it's winter), untamed, forbidding areas no humans dare habitate that we have in Alaska called simply "the Bush." This is not the country. The Country has barns. Exquisite painted, faded, peeling barns. And chickens. :)

Ruth said...

Thank you, Montag, for yours.

Ruth said...

Now I am not sure, Susie, if it is a crabapple, or as Sue thought, a red bud.

I liked that piece of advice about photography too. Less snapping away at street kids in foreign cities who look "picturesque" in their dirt and holes, and more snapping away of our own kids IN dirt and holes. Or at least being more sensitive to both.

Ruth said...

Oh, but VaNeSsA, I know some who won't leave Alaska's country.

I like inhabited country too. It might be nice to visit the untamed and wild, but I don't know if I could live there.

Arti said...

Beautiful post! Like I'm looking at a calendar... but do you know, we seldom see them painted here in Alberta. I don't know about other provinces, but we always see our barns in their natural wooden state... nothing like what you have here. Thanks for the history too.

Ruth said...

Arti - Oh! I wasn't aware of that about Alberta's barns. I really love seeing wood in its natural state, but it probably takes a lot of work to maintain and protect it.

Ginnie said...

How fun to read all that history of your place, Ruth. Now if you can only find out more about the ghosts!

Sandy said...

Loved this post and the photos of the barns, wonderful! How cool to see your farm so many years ago.

Ruth said...

Why'd you have to go and say that, Boots? I forgot about 'em!

Ruth said...

Thank you, Sandy.

Bob Grosh said...

In the early 50's I grew up in upstate NY. Our back yard bordered a farm pasture. The red barn with a white door was clearly visible from my bedroom window. When it was time for the cows to come in, sometimes a confused cow would refuse to go to the barn. Hundreds of times I watch the farmer bring a calf out and stand it in front of the white door and the stray cow would then come running. Most all dairy farms had white doors so the mommy cows could clearly see their calves.
While the entire barn could be painted with milk paint, adding the iron oxide prevented it from fading and reduced the frequency or repainting. In NY and Ohio, at least, a major reason for red, was to make it easier for the animals to see it in the snow. Only the barn was red, the house and other farm buildings were white or unpainted, again, for the benefit of the animals. This was all explained to me when I was 8 by my Uncle, who loved to tell me all about his farm. He always began with, "It's a food factory. Everything about a farm is done with the sole purpose of producing food in the most efficient manner possible.

Ruth said...

Bob, I love your comment. Thank you so much for sharing your white door memories. Wow!

sloan lespade said...

actually barns are red white or green because those are the colors barn paint comes in. it is called barn paint and there is a picture of a barn on the label. you cant tint barn paint because it wont dry right, though people who sell paint sometime try to tint it for you if you want green because they dont know any better. white and red are the colors most every place stocks. to find green you usually have to make oodles of phone calls. barn paint is livestock safe and is good coverage paint, thus it is different than if you just bought paint and painted your barn with it.

Dr. HoglieWogglie said...

There is a housewares company called "White Barn." I was curious about the name and this is how I found your blog. The company sells candles and other things that are quite genteel. I think the posters who mentioned that barns painted white implied cleanliness, and they are probably correct. Whitewashing barns with a mixture of lime, water and maybe milk or other ingredients produced a moderately durable, semi hygenic and inexpensive surface coating. As for the red color, chances are the pigment was iron oxide or ochre, an earth pigment in use by humans for at least the last 50,000 years. It would be found in red clays that could be suspended in water with binders, like egg white for example, and applied to rough or smooth surfaces. It is durable and provides protection against sun damage. Maybe even rain and snow.

You're right about how looking at barns is pastoral and peaceful --- especially for city folks like me. Ten years ago my wife and daughter and I flew to Chicago and rented a minivan. We drove to the various sites described by Laura Engels Wilder in her "Little House" books. Along the way, we drove country roads and took pictures of isolated farms. All kinds of barns and silos. I see them now in my mind. . . . . .