As Old Mission resident Evelyn Johnson saw the subdivisions closing in around the beloved barns on her home peninsula, she started to catalogue the iconic structures on this peninsula just outside Traverse City—interviewing barn owners on the phone or at farmhouse kitchen tables—and taking barn photographs.
Striking out in her red Buick (vanity plate: OMBARNS), she found beautiful barns, crumbling barns, barns on farms where 18 children in one family were raised and barns whose original title was signed by Abraham Lincoln. She discovered the back-story of 100 of the 22-mile-long peninsula’s barns—a history that started with potatoes and bohemians and evolved soon into fruit. She even documented a few phantom barns, where all that remains is a foundation or a picture. The result is her book, Barns of Old Mission Peninsula and Their Stories, available at regional booksellers.
How did you find the time to do this?
I didn’t watch TV for a whole year. Every night I was on the phone calling people, going to visit someone.
You say taking pictures of barns was like photographing life?
All these people who came out to Old Mission came from somewhere else and made something out of nothing. Now when I drive the 14 miles home up the peninsula, I kind of relive it. Every time I go by a barn, I think, that’s an old friend. I know the people. I’m a newcomer, only been here about 14 years.
What personally do you love about barns?
I like the way they are necessary on the landscape. They are part of our culture—the word agriculture has the word culture in it. I want my grandchildren to know this is the way life was. A part of who we are today comes from someone who farmed. I want them to know that.
The Panter barn (pictured). When I found that, I went wild. My husband called it the dollhouse barn. It’s completely all original and taken care of so well. And my kids’ barn. It’s monitor style, with the peak—that’s the Fowler barn. It hasn’t seen a cow in a long, long time. The kids have finished off the native maple on the floor and made a bowling alley in there. They have parties inside and outdoor movies on the side of the barn.
What is the oldest barn on Old Mission?
The oldest is the Bud Kroupa log barn—an 1859 barn on Neahtawanta Point, in the Kroupa family since that year. He still has the ax used to build it.
And how are the Old Mission barns faring?
There are two that won’t make it through the year. But there is a nice segment out here that want the barns preserved.
And what’s the best way to do that?
Keep a roof on it. The roof is number one.