Drive any country road in the United States and you're bound to see barns. Often beautiful to look at, these silent landmarks also serve as an important reminder of our nation's deep farming traditions.
As the granddaughter of a dairy farmer, I've always had a special place in my heart for barns, so I was intrigued by the new "Barns of Butler County" tour in Pennsylvania.
A self-guided tour, the route takes you through the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside to see 16 barns selected for the tour. (Of course, you'll see many more.) Many are drive-by stops, ideal for testing your photography skills, but with prior arrangements you can tour some of them. While all barn owners agreed to be on the tour, remember it's still private property, so keep a respectful distance.
Three color-coded routes are mapped out on the tour, and each barn is numbered. Unless you intend to drive like a maniac, consider an overnight stay in order to see all the barns.
Most structures on this tour are Pennsylvania "bank barns." During the 19th century, settlers built these barns into the side of a hill to allow for entry on two separate levels -- animals below and feed/storage above.
Just like a barn, the tour is not flashy. Yet, each structure represents a moment in history, and in some cases, the only thing that remains of a lifetime of hard work.
Here are a few highlights from the full tour that includes looks at old barns, restored barns, newer barns, historical barns and even a deteriorating barn (the Drover's Inn Farm stone barn).
>A working farm: Marburger Dairy Barn
Once a stock horse farm (ca. 1838), the Marburger family switched to dairy farming in the early 1920s. The current barn is the third structure on the site following a fire in 1912, modifications in the 1930s and another fire in 1979. Tours of this modern dairy barn are available weekdays. The dairy is famous for its buttermilk (even featured on the History Channel's "Food Tech" series). While the Marburger barn houses 150 cows, the dairy also secures milk from almost 70 nearby farms for its production.
Oh, the memories touring with Becky Marburger Rengers and Rita Marburger Reifenstein. They will show you the barn and milking parlor, and answer any questions. You'll also gain a better understanding of a dairy farmer's life. (No sick days or vacation! Cows are milked twice a day, every day.)
Does a large udder mean more milk? Not necessarily. Rita will tell you "all women tend to sag as we get older!" (She also quips that moms who nursed their children often relate to the cows that look forward to the relief the milking parlor provides.) If you are lucky enough to be around in the later afternoon, you might get to see the milking process.
To schedule a free weekday tour (and maybe get a sample of the fabulous chocolate milk), call Lisa at the dairy at (800) 331-1295; they are online at www.marburgerdairy.com.
>The Marharg Farm at Succop Conservancy
If you are a barn fanatic, don't miss the Marharg Farm. Call to see if barn aficionado Ryan Stauffer is available. As he'll tell you, he could talk about barns all day.
This particular barn was originally built in 1805 by Irish immigrant John Marharg, then dismantled and enlarged in 1883 when the family became more successful.
"For many of these families, the barn was a source of pride. They often built the barn before the house," says Stauffer. He can show you sections of the original barn that were recycled into the larger barn, and how the tight construction of the granary was meant to keep the mice out -- all points a casual observer might miss.
From the cut sandstone foundation to the trunnels (wooden pegs sometimes called "tree nails") holding beams, Stauffer brings the barn to life and gives visitors a deeper understanding of the ingenious designs and techniques barn builders employed. For fun, there is part of an extreme croquet course you can play that runs through the bottom of the barn.
The Succop Conservancy (http://bc3.cc.pa.us/conservancy) was established by Butler Community College. There's also a 170-year-old mansion and hiking trails. It's free and open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. To schedule a tour, call (724) 586-2591.
>Barn at Four Points Alpacas; Sunset Hills Alpacas Barn
Both these farms offer places to stay -- Four Points is more suited for couples, while Sunset Hills can accommodate a family.
At Four Points you'll meet the charming Don and Jan Phillips, who had a replica 1800s barn built to house their alpacas and compliment their 110-year-old home. Built by the Amish, construction took just 11 days. The structure includes a working cupola that lets out the warm air in the summertime. Don will tell you "it's an old design that really works."
The couple can escort you around the barn and talk about alpaca farming, from its history that dates back thousands of years to Peru and Chile to modern day animal care and wool use. There's also a charming little gift shop. Call (724) 586-9677 to schedule a tour or stay. Visit the farm online at www.fourpointsalpacas.com.
At Sunset Hills, you also will see alpacas and the barn, which is more than 100 years old and has been converted to house a chic alpaca fiber boutique. On Sept. 26, the farm hosts Alpaca Farm Days from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For a real treat, you can stay at the Stargazer Inn on the farm and watch darling alpacas frolic from your veranda. The inn can easily accommodate a family. Call ahead for a tour or information, (724) 586-2412 or go to www.sunsethillsalpacas.com.
>A drive-by, deteriorating
Not all the barns are in tip-top shape. The Drovers Inn, while in disrepair, still offers a unique look at a stone barn and tile silos, and reinforces the reality that family farming is becoming a thing of the past. What's unique about this barn is it was also a shepherd's home and then an inn for "drovers" moving livestock.
Two farms on the tour have converted their barns into venues for events. The results are stunning.
Armstrong Farms has one of three historic barns on a 200-year-old cattle farm owned by John and Kathy Allen. The John Love barn was built in 1865 by a Civil War veteran of the same name upon his return from service. In addition to a chic rustic setting for events, the lower level is still used during winter calving season. There are also the charming and rustic Westminster Preserve and Alyson Anne barns.
Warm weather means wedding season, so call ahead to see if you can sneak a peek at the barns. Off-season you may be able to secure a stay at one of the property's charming homes (and meet Stella the goose). Call (724) 352-2858 or visit www.armstrongfarms.com.
Betsy's Barn at Cheeseman Farm is another stunning barn built in 1999 by a farm family specifically for events on farmland no longer used. In September and October, the barn hosts a Pumpkin Festival and Fright Farm. Camping is available on the grounds at the Breakneck Lodge. Call (724) 368-3233 or www.cheesemanfarm.com.
If you go:
Where to eat: The Kaufman House, 105 S. Main St., Zelienople, www.kaufmanhouse.com; Mama Rosa's, Old Plank Road, Butler, www.butlersmamarosas.com; and the Log Cabin Inn, Perry Highway, www.springfields.com/lci_files/
logcabininn.html) are three spots along your trek where you can fill your tank.
More to do: Where there are barns, there are farms, and farmers' markets: Butler Farm Market on Route 68, Freedom Farms Market on Route 8 and the Harvest Valley Farms Market, also on Route 8 (all marked on the Barn Tour map).
To download the Barn Tour brochure or for accommodation information, visit www.visitbutlercounty.com or call the Butler County tourism office at (866) 856-8444 to have one mailed.