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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Our Temple of Radio

Let’s say you’re a longtime, enthusiastic Voice of America listener who has the opportunity to visit the United States, and someone like me, right now, informs you that there’s one place in America where you can find:

There’s even an interstate highway sign pointing drivers to an amazing VOA complex
• the site where VOA transmitters once sent the mightiest signals in international radio history into the heart of occupied Europe and elsewhere during World War II;
• a three-in-one museum that chronicles VOA’s story, the saga of wireless communication going back to Marconi, and local broadcasting history in rich detail;
• a large and beautiful park named for the Voice of America where you can hike, fish in a 14-hectare lake, sled down a long hill, get a match going on one of 24 soccer fields or a cricket pitch, bird-watch in meadow that’s an official wildlife preserve, let your mutt loose in the “Wiggly Field” dog park, and even get married!
• a university learning center that also carries the name of the Voice of America;
• and even a good-sized VOA shopping center, of all things.

You would surely assume that such an immersion experience would be in Washington, surrounding VOA headquarters on Independence Avenue and the National Mall. Or somehow squeezed into downtown New York City, where most VOA programming originated during the war.

Those choices are too obvious, of course. I must be teasing you about the location for a reason.

OK, so where is Cox Road?
Indeed, the place where you’ll find the Voice of America “brand” on dozens of buildings and signs and thousands of lips is nowhere near the nation’s capital or the Big Apple. I can assure you that there isn’t a VOA shopping center, university extension, wildlife preserve, or dog park anywhere near our nondescript Washington headquarters building or the VOA news bureau in congested Manhattan.

To picture their location, take your right hand and make a “V for Victory” sign of the sort for which Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, was famous.

Your fist is the pleasant and prosperous Midwest city of Cincinnati, Ohio. And your two uplifted fingers are busy interstate highways, the index finger heading north toward Dayton, Ohio, and on to Detroit, Michigan; and the middle finger angling northeastward to Ohio’s capital city of Columbus and the Great Lakes port of Cleveland.

Inside the V, what was once the rural township of West Chester has exploded from 39,700 population in 1990 to more than 62,000 today as housing subdivisions, shopping malls, business parks, hospitals, and freeway exit clusters of gas stations, restaurants, and motels have gobbled up almost every clod of dirt.

We’re getting warmer!
Save, that is, for a pretty, 253-hectare (625-acre) oasis 650 kilometers (400 miles) west of Washington where you can get that unparalleled Voice of America “fix.”

Why there?

As announcer Fred Foy intoned on the old Lone Ranger radio show in the 1940s, return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear for the fascinating answer.

Powel Crosley at age 20 or so, before he made his first million
The story begins with a man who, early on, had nothing to do with the Voice of America, or even broadcasting. Now mostly forgotten outside Cincinnati, Powel Crosley, Jr., an inventive industrialist, had his heart set on building inexpensive automobiles but would one day be known as “the Henry Ford of Radio.”

Lots of people drove Crosleys home and grabbed a beer or sandwich from their Crosley refrigerators in the 1940
Crosley had only modest luck making cars, but he – or rather, he and his engineers – did invent the first car radio and push-button radio, and the first auto with disc brakes. And, over in his appliances division, the “Shelvadoor” – the first refrigerator with shelves in the door – the first portable refrigerator, and the first fax machine. It was at his Crosley Field, too, where his Cincinnati Reds baseball team would inaugurate night games “under the lights” in 1935.

Powel Crosley became intrigued with broadcasting when his son asked for a radio set as a “toy.” Revolted by their exorbitant cost, Crosley was soon building radios and their components himself. By 1924, the Crosley Corp. was the world’s largest manufacturer of desk radios and large radio cabinets of the sort you see families gathered around in old photographs.

Crosley the radio man wanted to give people a good reason to buy his product, so he constructed a 20-watt transmitter in his home and began broadcasting to his neighbors.

Within ten years, the entire country would be listening, not through some network but to Crosley’s WLW – “The Nation’s Station” in Cincinnati – which generated its own elaborate programs, including the first “soap opera” using a resident company of actors and musicians. Many of them – singers Doris Day and the Mills Brothers among them – would become American superstars.

Broadcasting on medium wave at 500,000 watts – ten times the power of any other U.S. radio station then and to this day – beginning May 2, 1934 with the throwing of a switch by President Roosevelt in Washington, WLW bounced a signal off the ionosphere from coast to coast and beyond. Rival stations complained bitterly of unfair competition and interference with their signals. And when some of them began haranguing the federal government for equal power to mount their own superstations, Congress in 1939 rid itself of the controversy by capping every station’s power, including WLW’s, at 50,000 watts.

This early informational booklet shows the unusual shape of WLW's 224-meter (735-foot), 200-ton tower that blasted its signal clear across the continent
The WLW megastation’s programs emanated from Crosley’s downtown appliance factory, but its enormous tower – taller than the Washington Monument – sat 40 kilometers away near the little town of Mason, Ohio, in those same farm fields that we mentioned earlier. For good reason. A half-million-watt signal bouncing around downtown buildings would have played havoc with other electronic signals and drowned out every other station in town.

Fast forward to the early days of World War II, when Nazi Germany, too, had developed 62 powerful transmitters, shortwave in this case, pointed across Europe and reaching as far away as South America. German broadcasters poured out propaganda aimed at softening resistance to Nazi aggression and diverting America’s attention. Japan, too, operated 42 long-range transmitters flooding the Asian nations it was in the process of subjugating.

There was no equivalent American response, since the nation was trying mightily to stay clear of war. The signals of only 13 shortwave stations, programming innocuous entertainment, emanated from America’s shores at the time.

Powel Crosley’s WLWO – or WLW Overseas – was one of them. From two towers next to the WLW monster in those corn and alfalfa fields, it beamed orchestra music, comedy shows, crime dramas and “westerns” to Europe and Latin America with 75kw of shortwave power. Following Japan’s bombing of the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, and America’s immediate declaration of war on Japan and Germany, President Roosevelt summoned titans of industry and pleaded for help in countering Axis psychological warfare. WLWO began beaming German- and Italian-language broadcasts supplied by the Voice of America’s predecessor agency, the Office of War Information, operating out of New York. WLWO broadcasters like Robert Bauer, who had escaped Nazi Germany by an eyelash, gave the Third Reich a dose of its own bluster. Bauer, an Austrian like Adolf Hitler, could mimic the Führer’s speech impeccably. He would give faux rally speeches in which “Hitler” would dissolve into stark-raving lunacy – which, of course, wasn’t far removed from reality. The real madman, in turn, was heard to rail against “those Cincinnati liars.”

WLWO and other American-based shortwave stations also carried the very first words of the new Voice of America in February 1942, when newsman William Harlan Hale said in German from New York, “The news may be bad or the news may be good; we will tell you the truth.”

During a break in the president’s meeting with the moguls, Crosley Corp. Chairman James Shouse called his top engineer in Cincinnati and asked if the company could build 200kw shortwave transmitters with directional antennas that could be aimed at Europe, Africa, and South America.

“I don’t know, but I will sure give it a hell of a try,” replied the engineer.

These are some of the mammoth pillars, sunk far into the ground, that supported VOA’s Bethany towers
And so it was that the U.S. Government purchased a 250-hectare (625-acre) stretch of hillocks, meadows, and alfalfa fields in southwest Ohio, just down the road from Crosley’s WLW transmitter complex. This new “Bethany facility,” named after a local telephone exchange, was ideal because of its location far from coastlines that were viewed, in those anxious days after Pearl Harbor, as vulnerable to Axis attack. Besides, power from companies in Cincinnati and Dayton was readily at hand. (And boy, would Bethany need it. Once the plant was up and operating in September 1944, the Federal Government would pay the electric utility companies almost $900,000 a year for “juice.”)

Needless to say, the Bethany project got “AA-1” priority, obtaining all the glass vacuum tubes, steel, and copper it needed, despite the strict wartime rationing of such materials.

There in bucolic West Chester within a year and a few days, Shouse’s men, including Clyde Haehnle, who is still an active broadcast-engineering consultant and one of the VOA museum’s board members, constructed an impressive building the size of a small city’s airport terminal.

Here’s the Bethany transmitter site and some of the towers that it controlled.
A former board member and the project’s architect, Jim Fearing, calls it a “temple of radio,” Why so fancy for a top-secret installation, off-limits to, if not out of sight of, the public? “Powel Crosley was a showman,” says board member Dave Snyder, the facility’s supervisor in its final days. Crosley thought, perhaps, that he’d be getting control of the building back once the war was over. “You’d go up an impressive set of stairs to what we called ‘the fishbowl,’ from which you would see the whole transmitter concourse,” Snyder added.

Three of the old Crosley transmitters, photographed at the VOA Bethany site in 1968
Inside the handsome edifice, “RF,” or radio-frequency, transmitters converted low-wattage signals incoming on telephone lines into powerful ones, and six 175kw shortwave transmitters – the strongest in history, plus 24 directional shortwave antennas sent programming, ultimately in 52 languages, skipping off the ionosphere to overcome the earth’s curvature to precisely pinpointed target areas abroad.

“These shortwaves are not like those of our standard broadcast band,” an early VOA broadcast informed its audience. “They are the siege guns of radio, the heavy artillery – guns of war that can hurl explosive facts against weapons of lies and confusion, anywhere in the world.”

A Collins transmitter panel, including its signal’s “flow chart”
For those of you who “speak engineering,” I’m told that these manually tuned Crosley transmitters were later replaced by even more powerful, remotely tuned 250kw Collins units.

According to one report, the Crosley engineers had to overcome “horrendous” technical problems in mounting the new transmitter site. “New tubes had to be designed [and built from scratch], 24 high-gain rhombic antennas improved, [and] ‘re-entrant termination’ advanced to keep antennas from simply melting. . . . It was the most sophisticated antennae system ever devised.”

Funny things happened out in the antenna field from time to time. Not always so funny if you were involved, however
John Vodenik, who spent a decade at Bethany and now works in VOA’s Network Control Center at our Washington headquarters, recalls the day when an “electric blue” flame shot from one of the Collins transmitters, melting a hole in the aluminum side panel and setting off a popping sound matched only when various wildlife species would meet their demise atop one of the 300-ohm transmission lines, or when accumulations of ice would create a “light show” of arcs among the wires. The building did not burn down during the blue-flame incident, but the station crew had to take the panel to a local auto-body shop for repairs. Every once in awhile, though, VOA engineers had to call in the local fire department to extinguish flames triggered by lightning strikes in the alfalfa. The government had allowed a farmer to continue planting and plowing right in the antenna field.

The entire complex was surrounded by chain-link fence and closely guarded by military sentries, some of whom slept in the observation tower above the transmitters and control rooms. Guards would remain through the Cold War years, after which engineers could finally allow in curious citizens and passersby for impromptu tours.

You would not have found a single microphone at the Bethany site. It was pragmatism – and paranoia – at work. What if enemy agents were to seize control of transmitters that could be redirected to different parts of the world in ten minutes?

This model of VOA’s Bethany station, sold as part of fundraising for the new National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting, includes a good look at the observation tower
VOA’s Bethany site, like others in California and North Carolina, was considered a “relay station,” passing along, rather than originating, programming from Washington and New York directly to international audiences or to other such stations in North Africa, Pacific Islands, Asian locations, and elsewhere. For a time, Bethany even connected with relay stations aboard destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea.

In 1945 Powel Crosley, still determined to build and market inexpensive automobiles, sold WLW and all other Crosley broadcasting properties, though Crosley engineers continued to operate VOA’s Bethany site until Voice of America personnel took over in 1963.

Early VOA Bethany Station engineers weren't a jeans-and-T-shirt crowd. The dress and attention to detail were professional all the way
Beginning in 1951 during the Cold War, arrays of “curtain antennas,” strung among gigantic steel support towers, were added to Bethany’s broadcast arsenal. These arrays were oriented at different angles facing Europe and parts of Africa. Exactly where could be changed quickly during station breaks while the transmitters were briefly shut off. But to do it, crews of three had to hustle out back in all types of weather and flip a series of handles by hand in a “switching matrix” of telephone poles and wires that still survives. It looks like a small power substation. Switches would freeze so solidly in the dead of winter that engineers had to attach lit propane torches to poles, reach up and melt the ice in order to throw them. Sudden shifts in frequency came often, too, to outfox Soviet engineers who were adroit at jamming shortwave signals.

Down goes one of the Bethany towers. Old-timers had wanted to keep them, but the prevailing view was that even unelectrified, they were a safety hazard, too tempting to daredevil climbers
Operations continued at the Bethany Relay Station six final years after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, hastening the end of the Cold War. With the advent of satellite transmissions, the need for the aging Ohio facility had declined. Pressures on the VOA budget, plus our agency’s steady move away from shortwave broadcasting except in parts of the world where medium wave, FM, and television broadcasting had yet to take hold, hastened Bethany’s death knell. The site was decommissioned in September 1995, and its landmark towers were pulled down soon thereafter.

With the closing of the Bethany station, it was time to tell its story, if succinctly, in a historical marker
There was another factor working against Bethany as well. Its ever-increasing number of neighbors did not find the interference from our powerful transmitters amusing. We can laugh at the stories of a radio signal causing windshield wipers to spontaneously erupt, neighborhood downspouts and one fellow’s entire furnace to throb with music, and a nearby church’s public-address system to break into VOA Spanish in the middle of the minister’s sermon. Nearby bedsprings were a good VOA signal carrier, too. But things got so bad that the local telephone company passed out anti-interference filters; and car and truck manufacturers would run new models up and down Tylersville Road, testing their shielding against the radio behemoth’s signals.

In 2000, shortly after the Bethany site was formally transferred to West Chester Township, Bill Zerkle, the parks and recreation director, was visited by his boss. “We’re getting the VOA property,” he told Zerkle, and as part of the agreement this old transmitter building is to become a museum. “So buddy, you go for it,” Zerkle recalls the superior’s instruction.


The preserved VOA transmitter building and grounds are dwarfed by the rest of the site. They lie at the bottom middle, to the right of the shopping center parcel

Miami University’s “Voice of America Learning Center” has an impressive home
The site was carved into several pieces. Thirty hectares in the southwest corner – thankfully only that corner given the glut of civilization already in the area – was sold to shopping-mall developers for a “Voice of America Centre” shopping plaza. Eight hectares went to Miami University, one of Ohio’s state universities, for a learning center. Once built in a halls-of-ivy-style columned structure complete with classrooms and meeting spaces, it began serving 21st century-style “swirling students.” These are often working adults with what the VOA Learning Center’s Rod Nimtz calls “fluid student experiences” who are compiling college credits evenings or weekends and adding them to those earned years earlier and elsewhere.

In addition to lovely natural features like this fishing lake, the VOA Park will one day add a performance amphitheater, whose crowds may be ripe customers for the VOA museum
The county’s “metroparks” system got 80 hectares as a nature preserve, a recreational site – including a sledding hill that attracts snow-lovers from three states – and a lodge for receptions, dances, and those weddings that I alluded to earlier.

The little piece that remained of the project, including the transmitter building, was left to the township for that unspecified museum.

Zerkle, who left the parks department to become president and CEO of the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting in 2007, set up shop in the deserted, unheated building. It had been toasty warm in the days when its transmitters, full of large and red-hot tubes, were, in architect Fearing’s words, “sucking up 3 million watts” of power; so hot were the tubes that some transmitter components had to be cooled in vats called “water jackets,” whose rising steam heated the building. Now Zerkle was spending his winters in sweater, coat, and hat, surrounded by little space heaters. He and volunteers from a group called the Veterans’ Voice of America Fund, later renamed The National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting Fund, began money-raising, and in 2008 they secured enough funds to create the museum master plan.

The “National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting” will one day, perhaps soon, incorporate four “visitor experiences,” two of which are already in place:

Just a few of the items, some of them now truly priceless, at the Gray’s Wireless Museum portion of the building
• Gray’s History of Wireless Museum, which had previously resided in the hallways of Cincinnati’s public television station. One of the largest assemblages of antique radio and telegraphy equipment in the country, the collection is named for Jack Gray, a onetime Marconi Co. shipboard wireless operator and Bethany Station engineer who began displaying artifacts in his garage.

Some of the displays at the Greater Cincinnati and Ohio Museum of Broadcasting wing of the building, such as this children’s-show exhibit, are lighthearted
• and the Greater Cincinnati and Ohio Museum of Broadcasting, put together by Cincinnati broadcaster Mike Martini, whose nonprofit Media Heritage organization has gathered thousands of oral histories, photographs, radio scripts, early radio shows, and the private memorabilia of area broadcast pioneers. Some of this material had literally been rescued from trash bins after a previous broadcast museum was closed and “mothballed.”

A third component, now under construction, is a reincarnated working amateur, or “ham” radio station, WC8VOA, whose operations will be fully visible to visitors. Technicians had run the amateur station on the premises during the Bethany station’s operating lifetime.

A restored control room console
The fourth and key ingredient, of course, is the building itself – with all of its control rooms, giant transmitters, and switching equipment, augmented by recorded stories of VOA employees and those behind the Axis, Iron, and Bamboo curtains who received transmissions from Bethany. From the moment the gates to the property were thrown open after the feds left town, international visitors have shown up unannounced, knocked on the door, and asked when the museum would open. Some then told riveting, even heroic tales of surreptitiously listening to VOA’s words of truth and hope in occupied lands.

The pièce de résistance will be a Grand Concourse and a VOA Gallery. The former will feature an overhead oval screen so that the story of "America's Voice" can be dramatized using a 360-degree multi-media presentation. Actors will also portray VOA notables and broadcasters. The interactive VOA Gallery will use artifacts, hands-on displays, and a large-scale model of the Bethany Station to focus on the station’s role in World War II and the Cold War.

The museum will also offer a gift shop, a grand tour of the restored VOA transmitter facilities and control room from half a century ago, and, outside, such experiences as walks along paths carefully sited along the azimuths of the Bethany antennas’ signals. Maybe even the restrooms will be part of the tour. “There were two,” Gray’s Museum Secretary-Treasurer Bob Sands notes. “One for employees and one for gentlemen”!

Visitors are sure to find the site’s switching matrix fascinating
Earlier this summer, West Chester Township commissioners agreed with the museum’s board that the VOA Bethany site, properly promoted as a companion tourist attraction to the nearby King’s Island amusement park and a museum complex inside Cincinnati’s ornate downtown train terminal, could draw 30,000 or more visitors annually. They allocated $1.4 million to fix the Bethany building’s crumbling glazed-block exterior, replace every door and window, and install floodlights and ramps for disabled visitors. The move gave the museum board confidence that the search for the estimated $14 million needed to complete a world-class museum will bear fruit.

The degree to which the federal government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), VOA’s parent agency in Washington, will support the VOA Museum in Ohio with funds, artifacts, or special permission to present VOA programming has yet to be determined.

Distant shortwave listeners who record the time, date, frequency, and nature of a program that they hear and send in the information get a confirming, souvenir QSL card, like this one from the Bethany site, in return
“At its core the story here is not about technology,” Bill Zerkle told me, with considerable passion. “It’s not even about radio or the old days. It’s about a strategy for spreading freedom and democracy that is so simple – to just tell the truth.

“What these people here did was to pull together the inventions that evolved from Marconi and create state-of-the-art technology that enabled professional VOA media people to tell the truth about this great country. It’s a story they believed in – still believe in – and one that resonates with the people of this area.”


This is a conception of a gallery to be incorporated into the new VOA Museum. It will focus on the site’s role in World War II and the run-up to the Cold War and include a model of the Bethany Relay Station site


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Bucolic. Rustic, pastoral, countrified.

Soap opera. A serialized radio, and later television, romantic drama, aimed at a female audience and frequently sponsored by the makers of soap powders.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Noble Barns

Everywhere Carol and I go — well, maybe not everywhere — we look for old barns.

Georgia farmers haul fertilizer to their barn — by horse wagon, you will note — in 1940
“Old barn” is nearly redundant, unfortunately, since just about every barn is old. As “Market to Market,” the online weekly journal of rural America, puts it, “For centuries, the American barn stood as a testament to the value of hard work and a rural way of life. But, like the covered bridge and one-room schoolhouse, the barn is rapidly disappearing from the landscape.”

This creaky old barn is of no use to anything but mice and clinging vines
Some weathered, abandoned barns, including a number that are strangled by kudzu or other unchecked vines, are collapsing almost before our eyes. “She’s gonna go,” Iowa barn preservationist Rod Scott told a visiting New York Times reporter last year as they gazed at a buckling, 1850-vintage stone barn. The account continues: “Down a gravelly road, he sighs at a small barn decorated with a mural, standing but stooping slightly now. A bit farther, holes in the walls of another offer a flash of some forgotten life — a rusted rocking chair, a beer can, an old bed frame. And on one rise sits a ruin, the oak beams of a barn fully collapsed, hay bales still at the ready, crushed beneath.”

These are common scenes down country roads across America.

This Pennsylvania Amish Country corn crib is practically bursting with cobs
Next to a barn photo on his Web site, Iowan Lavonne House wrote, “I wonder how many ears have been stored in the corn crib over the years or how many calves were born in the barn or maybe some girl’s and boy’s first kiss as they looked at the stars through the cracks in the roof?”

And how many square dances filled the barnyard with music there? There’s a reason why the classic country-music show called the “Grand Ole Opry” is staged in a Nashville, Tennessee, auditorium that is decorated like a barn.

If a skyscraper is a symbol of the city, a barn is a telltale sign that you’re in the country
In a bygone era when the nation lived closer to the land, the first thing a farmer built after he bought a new spread was not a farmhouse but a barn, using wood sawed from timber felled right on the farm, or, especially in rocky New England, stones unearthed nearby. Heavy stones, too, and thick-cut timber fitted into a “post and beam” skeleton, so the structure would withstand storms and the weight of animals as big as Clydesdale draft horses, and their feed. That feed could be dropped directly into the animals’ stalls from above through trap doors.

The farmer and his neighbors would gather on a piece of high ground to raise a sturdy, all-in-one structure to shelter his livestock, store his grain, and protect his wagon. Alongside many a barn, too, rose simple corn cribs or much taller silos. The latter stored silage — fermented green fodder such as chopped hay, alfalfa, clover, or shredded corn — that compacted tightly, keeping out air and pests and preventing spoilage. Silage seems rank to humans, but cud-chewing animals like cattle and sheep find it tasty.

Another Amish Country scene. Here in central Pennsylvania, and in Wisconsin in the Midwest, too, most farms are tidy and prosperous

Big barns also often included a blacksmith’s shop; a tack room where saddles and bridles and such were kept and repaired; an attached milkhouse where milk was stored for delivery; and sometimes a space equipped with an iron “squeeze chute” that could catch and hold a large animal for examination or veterinary treatment.

The barn may belong to this girl and her family, but we can see who has the run of the place
Barns must seem cozy and luxurious to the animals that are sheltered there, compared to conditions outside. But they’re hardly equipped with all the comforts of a human’s home. If you’ve ever been asked whether you were “raised in a barn,” you have a sense how drafty even the snuggest barn can be. And odors from animal waste, awaiting a good washdown or mucking, while presumably quite tolerable to the animals and a reality of farm life to their owners, are hardly sylvan scents to the unaccustomed. There’s a reason why even rural folk prefer the upwind side of a pig farm, in particular.

I should pause here to make it clear that, as a child of suburbia, I have visited and very much appreciate the strength and symbolism of barns and the men and women who built and maintain them. But most of what I know about these iconic structures came from my mother and uncle, raised in “the country” in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains, from childhood stories like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, from numerous farm visits — ever watching where I stepped — and from a number of neat Web sites.

Neighbors arrive for an auction at, or perhaps of, a Vermont farm in 1940

But I must still channel a bit of their poor Scalp Level, Pennsylvania, farm — or my ancestors’ native Wales — since every time I’m in the country, I find myself plucking a grain stem, sticking it between my teeth, and ambling down the road, kicking rocks.

Where were we?

Ah, yes. As the number of family farms dwindles before the onslaught of consolidation and suburban sprawl, many barns that survive have become nostalgic landmarks, even to those who have never set foot in one.

This is a bank barn in Illinois. You can see that the farmer built a long, earthen ramp up to the second level to facilitate the unloading of grain
Early barns, built with great sweat and affection, reflected the heritage of their builders. Norwegians and Swedes built “bank barns” with a lower entrance and, on the opposite side, a long, earthen ramp that enabled wagons loaded with feed to drive directly into the upper level. Below you could thresh grain or keep livestock — plus a family of mousers — cats that keep the rodents in check. Scots-Irish farmers erected crib barns with pig or cattle stalls and covered them with tin or asphalt roofs. Western farmers with large cattle herds topped their barns with high “hip” or gambrel roofs — bent a bit like a horse’s hind leg — that greatly increased the capacity of the haymows and often included an overhang equipped with a pulley to hoist hay bales into the loft.

Talk about fancy! This what Shelburne Farms, hard by Lake Champlain in Vermont, calls the “farm barn,” meaning it was the headquarters of a huge model farm and cheese-making operation, rather than a working dairy barn

Czechs and Russians had an affinity for house-barn combinations. Cedar shingles and bay windows — for ventilation — were common New England adornments.

You can see the long forebay on this barn along the old Lincoln Highway, or U.S. Route 30, in Pennsylvania, where the owner is obviously a historian and artist, or art lover
Germans and Swiss, whom many early Americans mistakenly called “Pennsylvania Dutch” because they spoke Deutsch, built many a “Pennsylvania barn” or “Dutch barn,” notable for their gable roofs, cantilevered “forebays,” or upper floors that projected past the foundation line. This provided a bit of shade and covered working space outside. Most Dutch barns also included three or four distinctive ventilators in decorative cupolas, which pulled moisture and heat from the buildings.

George Washington, the nation’s first president and a prominent Virginia farmer, discovered the advantages of a round barn or round-appearing structure with 12 or 16 sides. They’re a favorite of mine, and I’ll have more to say about them anon.

Massive and relatively unadorned barns had the simplest of decorations. Chief among them was their color — usually red because reddish ferric oxide was the cheapest pigment and acted as a modest preservative. But in poor regions such as southern Appalachia, where farms were less prosperous, many a barn went unpainted until an
This Mail Pouch barn needs some touch-up. Like many barns in southwest Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia, it is stained black to actually intensify the heat inside, to speed the tobacco-curing process
advertising salesman came along. He would see to it that the barn got painted if the owner would permit him to emblazon it with a grandiose testament to brands of chewing tobacco or patent medicine, or promotions of nearby waterfall or rock-formation attractions. “Red Man,” “Mail Pouch” and “See Rock City” barns are still somewhat plentiful in the mid-South. Such is their nostalgic appeal that people treasure them, photograph them like crazy, and keep some of them freshly painted.

By the way, if you’re tempted to grab a brush, you should know that it can take a single person three summers and 200 liters [53 gallons] of paint to cover a good-sized barn. Check back with me on Twitter in a month or two and let me know how it’s going.

Here’s a creative bit of barn art for sure, in Wisconsin. Note that the Mona Lisa is a big Green Bay Packers football fan
“Hex” signs, weather vanes, and lightning rods were other decorative touches. Barns became the perfect “canvas” for oversized portraits, animal likenesses, and fanciful designs, as you can see in a couple of Carol’s photos. We saw several in Ohio that carry the state outline and a faded plug for Ohio’s 2003 bicentennial.

Of course, barn aficionados like me would argue that barns themselves are works of art.

Of literature, too, though the best-known “barn quote” isn’t very grand: “It’s too late to close the door after the horse is out of the barn,” goes an old proverb, or words to that effect. The late, droll television host Johnny Carson — once a Nebraska farmboy — had a cute one: “I was so naive as a kid that I used to sneak behind the barn and do nothing.” Sam Rayburn, the colorful Texan who ran the U.S. House of Representatives as its speaker for 17 years, once wryly observed, “It takes a good carpenter to build a barn, but any jackass can kick one down.”

Can you find anything not to like about this beautiful scene on a rapeseed farm in Idaho?

I’m not sure why a tense, often fast-paced sporting contest is called a “barn burner,” since the term traces to an old Dutch story about a fellow who found the perfect way to rid his barn of rats. He burned it down.

You would probably write the same caption I would for this photo of Carol’s: “Seen better days”
Thousands of barns have been left to rot as farmers turned to sturdier, climate-controlled metal sheds that could hold large machinery. When small farms are combined, fewer barns are needed. Many farmers also lacked the capital or insurance to rebuild barns that burned, sagged, or blew down. Others had no reason to, knowing that their children, gone to the city for good, would want no part of long hours and backbreaking farm work. So they left the old barn to termites and windstorms, vandals and the kudzu.

Others in “the country,” including city refugees trying out the rural lifestyle, find they have no real use for a barn and raze it to make room for a garden or more rows of corn.

That’s Carol’s Aunt Kate and a neighbor at the North Carolina barn where Carol helped “sucker” tobacco, meaning she would pull auxiliary shoots called “suckers” from the leaves
In North Carolina alone, a study found that the number of tobacco barns, estimated at half a million in the 1950s, is down to 50,000 by “the most generous estimate.” Carol photographs about 8,500 of them each year while visiting Carolina for her family’s summertime reunions.

But an incredible array of historical societies, professional and amateur architects, Internet Web sites, collectors’ groups, and just plain barn lovers have rescued old barns. The National Trust for Historic Preservation not only helped save hundreds of barns through its “Barn Again!” program, it even staged an old-fashioned barn-raising inside the National Building Museum in Washington in 1994. Needless to say, that building has a really large atrium.

As for round barns, there’s an old American saying about people who throw a baseball or a rock or a snowball and miss their targets entirely. They throw so poorly, they “couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.”

Round barns, though, don’t have a broad side.

This is not literally a round barn. It’s a nonagon, a barn with nine sides in Door Prairie, Indiana. But a nine- or 12- or 16-sided barn has pretty much the same effect as a round one
There are at least a thousand of them across America. They have been part of the rural landscape almost as long as European settlers have lived here. George Washington admired them, as I mentioned. He also built one. So did early Massachusetts settlers from an odd religious order called “Shakers.” Others built them throughout the Midwest from the 1880s through the 1920s.

Carpenters discovered that round barns required less stone or wood than rectangular barns, thus saving on costs. Because their roofs are supported by the one circular wall, no columns are needed. So there’s more room for livestock and hay — and dancing! Midwesterners learned, too, that high winds – even tornadoes – that would pulverize an ordinary barn often glance off a round one.

This is the classic: the Arcadia Round Barn on Route 66 outside Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Perhaps the most famous American round barn is a big red one with a green, egg-shaped roof made of cedar shingles. It was built in rural Oklahoma out of burr oak in 1898 by a farmer named Big Bill Oder. In order to bend the boards around the circular frame of the barn, he soaked them for weeks in the closest river.

Over the years the round barn was — and still is — the town’s favorite dance spot and one of the most-photographed buildings along scenic, two-lane Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles. The Arcadia Round Barn may not be one of the world’s Eight Wonders, but it’s among Oklahoma’s top ten for sure.

In the 1970s, the barn was abandoned. Slowly it began to bulge and slump to the east, until a group of citizens bought it and fixed it up. They pounded telephone poles into the ground all around the barn, wrapped heavy guy wires around them and the barn, and pulled until the old red barn was upright again. That caused the roof to collapse, but they made a new one.

This old Tennessee barn hasn’t exactly been restored. But was put to another use, as a rural garage and repair shop
Thousands of other barns have been restored as well — some for continued agricultural use, thanks to a 20-percent federal tax credit, but many more for other purposes. We’ve run across historic museums, antique shops, real estate offices, firehouses, and bed-and-breakfast inns set up in barns across the country. Quite a few people now live in old barns, too. A few are even born there. (“Hey. Shut the door. Were you born in a barn or something?” “Why yes, I was.”) Most recently in Ohio Amish country, we explored several refurbished barns that a dealer in Amish and other Pennsylvania Dutch goods had moved to the site and connected.

All these “adaptive re-uses” preserve barns as photogenic relics, but, as I once wrote in a VOA “Only in America” essay, “Almost always, something is missing from this happy picture: a cornfield or a pasture – or a pig, or a cow!”

It beats the alternative of a forlorn, collapsed shell or no barn at all, however.

There’s little in life that’s more peaceful and refreshing than springtime in the country

Barns that survive on the farm or live in our memories are cherished harvest homes. We stop to admire a beautifully preserved one, to pause over a yellowed photograph, to wonder at the hard but honorable work that went on inside what is now a sagging ruin, and to sigh at the erosion of an American tradition that the passing of barn after barn represents.

A barn owl: the farmer’s friend
If small farmers keep leaving the land, and bulldozers and wrecking balls keep clearing the countryside for cookie-cutter houses and streetlights and cars, you’ll one day need those old photos, or maybe an old farmer if you can find one, to show your kids what a barn was.


Uncle Walter

As you know from encountering my “Wild Words” each week, I like and use a lot of unusual English words. In America, one of them needs no definition beyond the mention of a person’s name.

The word is avuncular.

And the name is Walter Cronkite.

Most of the obituaries of this lion of television anchormen, who died July 17 at age 92, reach for that word in describing him. It has to do with the twinkly qualities of a kindly uncle. Note the “unc” in both words. Genial, unthreatening Uncle Walter — he on the screen and we at home were on a first-name basis, it seemed — invited us onto his knee for story time.

Not happy stories, often, but important ones that we needed to hear.

Today’s media environment glorifies action, sizzle, and showmanship. As Tom Knott points out in the Washington Times, the hottest medium, the Web, has as “its principal objective [to] push out gobs of content, create traffic, and inspire comments.” There and on TV, there’s no one who, by consensus, we all turn to, count on, and trust. You like her. I like him. Sets down the street are tuned to a hundred others whom those people prefer.

A young Uncle Walter
Most of America watched Walter Cronkite, and everybody trusted him.

Uncle Walter had no sizzle at all. For 21 years, until his retirement in 1981, he sat stiffly on camera — as you or I would — as if the limelight discomfited him. But we grew comfortable with him. There were few yuks on Managing Editor Cronkite’s CBS Evening News. A touch of bemusement, a twitch of his little moustache, or an arch of his raging eyebrows was as far as he’d go.

It’s hardly original thinking, but it bears repeating: When Walter Cronkite signed off “That’s the way it is,” that’s the way America was, all right, that night.

I doubt we’ll be using “avuncular” much any more.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Gambrel. This is a French word, roughly meaning “meat hook” and is often applied to the style of roofs, especially on barns. It reflects the abrupt change in pitch of the roof.

Haymow. A loft where hay or other grain is piled, ready to feed animals below. “Mow” as used here, by the way, rhymes with “plow,” not “toe.”

Hex signs. In the United States, hex signs are Pennsylvania Dutch folk art meant, despite their name, to bring farmers good luck, not cast a spell on their neighbors. They are intended, however, to ward off evil and others’ hexes and to “protect” the site from bad luck, which is one way of bringing good fortune.

Kudzu. An aggressive vine that can completely cover abandoned structures and strangle trees and other plants. Kudzu was introduced from Japan as a decorative plant at the 1876 U.S. centennial fair in Philadelphia. Little did people know that the invasive species would become a nightmare as it ran rampant, especially in the hot, humid South.

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