Prairie Plains Resouce Institute's Restored Barn on the Platte River, The Charles I. Whitney Education Center
By Bill Whitney
Many a good education was had in a barn. This is sometimes my response to many of the contentious bond issue debates about new school buildings. It’s not that new schools are not necessary, but that the reason for building the school, i.e., the quality of what happens inside, often gets pushed aside. The discussion of new brick and mortar is far more common than arguing the merits of teaching students the complicated history of the Civil War, for example. But I am still serious about the relationship of the barn to education. Barns were always interesting places with their lofty, angular spaces filled with all sorts of things, their earthy smells and, of course, their creatures. Farm children and sometimes their visiting town friends learned how to work in a barn, learned about new life and death as livestock and pets were born and nursed — or died in the barn. They learned the misery of uncomfortable working conditions while scooping out manure and straw in all types of weather, or putting up hay in stifling dusty summer heat. They learned construction methods and teamwork in building or repairing the barn. Of course they learned how to play in a barn, especially on a rope or experiencing new heights in a haymow! Such was the rural upbringing in a former age, and it served the young people and their parents and grandparents well.
Alas, barns are a disappearing part of our rural landscape, as is the type of education they fostered on the farm. Once embodying the pragmatic and thrifty ethic of farm families trying to survive on the land, barns increasingly serve little function on today’s farms. The type of education kids used to imbibe in a barn as a natural life process — where the young learned the basics about such pragmatism, thrift, problem solving, care and responsibility — is seen today as quaint, old fashioned and perhaps unsophisticated; somehow not critically important in our modern era and certainly not feasible anymore. As a society we now accept for our children endless online or televised realities — which, of course, are not real at all. It is easy to guess what the average kid says today when I pick up a dry cowpie in the prairie to discuss its insect life or the topic of nutrient recycling.
Barns may never become necessary again or represent what they did in that former era. Functional outbuildings on farms and ranches are now industrial products built stronger and with many wonderful design features appropriate for today. Perhaps these new structures will be romanticized in a hundred years in a similar way. However, the metaphor and iconic cultural and architectural symbolism of the barn as I described it is an important one for the Great Plains and rural America. Not only is the vernacular design still interesting and full of possibilities for an architect, and the human stories of interest to an anthropologist or historian, but also a good education can still be had in a barn. And should be! Indeed more education needs to happen in such an unpretentious atmosphere surrounded by life and new discovery — i.e., where things are what they are and manure, well, smells like manure.
With deliberate recognition of these bare barn facts Prairie Plains Resource Institute has recently moved a historic local barn to its Platte River bluffs prairie land in Hamilton County, Neb. The ultimate purpose in doing this is to create an education center and to restore the tradition of learning important and fundamental stuff in a barn. Where once a barn centered on the agricultural life and the parochial interests of a particular farm family, our reborn barn will help us teach to the world about the world — an expansive reality that includes nature and ecosystems; ecological restoration; study of critically important natural resources, such as water; agriculture; history; literature; sociology; and community development, all in context to our particular place in the heartland of North America. Like our barn in its former life, education there will happen through a combination of hands-on experience and cultural activity. It will become a collecting place for people to share information, discover new things, do science, write, philosophize, pontificate, debate, eat, play and listen to music, get married, sit, or just hang out together in the country. We want people to be comfortable there just sitting and looking out at the profound beauty of the Platte River Valley.
In 2002, with funding from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, Prairie Plains bought a 390-acre farm from Eugene (Mert) and Gwen Griffith. I had worked with Mert for about 10 years helping him burn his pasture to control cedar trees. He had in return generously stored our fire equipment in his quonset and allowed us to use the pasture for SOAR (Summer Orientation About Rivers) day camps and seed harvesting. The land is located along the Platte River in Hamilton County, Neb., three-and-one-half miles west of Marquette (or 13 miles northwest of Aurora). It includes more than a half mile of Platte River frontage, more than 250 acres of one of the most scenic and high quality upland native prairies in the region, excellent outbuildings and irrigated cropland. The purpose in purchasing this land was to protect and restore the prairie for future generations and to make it accessible to people through Prairie Plains mission activities, such as nature education and compatible forms of recreation. This meant, among other things, continuing the good stewardship of former owners, especially concerning major cedar tree removal, prescribed burning and range management. Another important reason for the purchase was to have a superbly
scenic and diverse location suitable for creating an education center. This was one of the original sets of purposes outlined in the Articles of Incorporation of Prairie Plains in 1980:
To provide a center where persons of mutual interest in the natural history, horticulture, agriculture, human culture, sociology and the development and welfare of the plains may exchange ideas for the benefit and welfare of the members thereof and the state and the nation.
The education center project was initiated in 2002 by University of Nebraska architecture master’s degree student, Mark Ratzlaff, son of Neal and Izen Ratzlaff, who donated the Marie Ratzlaff Prairie Preserve near Henderson to Prairie Plains in 1989. Mark’s project required that he select an appropriate building site and create a building design incorporating our program needs, complete with all the drawings and presentation materials. Mark’s first inquiries about project possibilities coincided with us becoming aware of a unique barn about five miles from the Griffith land. I heard about it from one of our staff members. When I first saw it, I was overwhelmingly impressed with its geometry, proportions and height. I knew the person living on the farmstead, Larry Sands (actually, it’s Larry’s mother, Mildred Sands, who owned the barn), and got permission to inspect the barn. It was even more awesome on the inside! I told Larry what we were thinking of doing and finally asked him if it was feasible to acquire the roof for our center (the walls were ceramic tiles, which at the time we did not know could be salvaged). The whole Sands family discussed the idea and decided to donate the barn. They had no use for it anymore and it was destined to eventually deteriorate if nothing was ever done.
When Mark finished his degree, we got in touch with architect/builder Lee Schriever from Panama, Neb., in hopes that Mark could acquire some licensing hours with Lee in the creation of formal plans, including how to actually get it built, since Lee had experience moving and restoring two other barns. They worked out the details: Lee and Mark measured the actual structure, measured elevations on the proposed building site, then drew up plans. The final step in this phase was for Mark to construct a tabletop model, which ultimately helped the family to see the potential of converting it into a new building. Things then lay dormant for a few years as we struggled with the next steps of fundraising and building.
Finally in 2006, with the stimulus of a significant anonymous gift, Prairie Plains began a fundraising campaign with the goal of putting the barn roof onto a new concrete foundation at the Griffith land. This meant Lee had to dust off the initial plans and make the necessary working drawings to get started. Committing to the move was a critical decision since the barn had to be moved on frozen ground over corn and soybean fields. We could not risk delaying another whole year on the project, so groundbreaking was set for late September. Working steadily from then on into January 2007, a variety of people — concrete contractors, Lee the architect now wearing his carpenter hat (during the hiatus in activity, Mark had gotten a job with an architectural firm in Omaha) and many volunteers — helped pour concrete floors and insulated concrete form foundation walls and framed walls. By mid-January 2007, after a strangely warm early winter which allowed the concrete work well into December, and two massive ice storms that ruined a lot of the county’s rural power infrastructure and jeopardized the barn move due to crews being too busy to lower four power lines, we were finally ready for the barn. Freezing bitter cold finally came in January and fortunately stayed past mid-February. The barn roof move — a Great Plains epic in itself — occurred on February 8 and 9, 2007. The excitement was like the circus coming to town.
After stabilizing the structure on its foundation, the project entered another lull. Other Prairie Plains field chores had to be done by staff, including writing grants for the project, and quickly the too-busy summer season eliminated the availability of volunteers. Lee also had to get back to a large list of his custom projects in various planning and construction phases. Presently we are still seeking funds to begin the next round of building, hopefully this fall and winter, and again with significant participation by volunteers. This round will involve enclosing the structure and completing the lower walk-out level—the large public restrooms; large, easily partitioned activity space; kitchen; an office; and screened porch. Once the lower level is completed, we begin program use — hopefully in 2008.
The barn project essentially recycles a huge quantity of lumber harvested circa 1910–1920. It preserves the vernacular design of a unique structure that was considered one of the highest quality barns in the area. If we only knew all the stories that go with its years of use on the farm! Beginning last March — and later on, suffering through the heat and humidity of August — staff and volunteers separated, cleaned and moved the ceramic tile blocks that used to hold up the massive roof. The entire barn is now on-site.
The blocks will be used inside and out, adding their rich blue/black/red/orange colors. Even the broken tile and shards will be used as red mosaics set in concrete or as rubble around the base of the barn, or possibly on a path. When completed, the central barn rafters will be exposed on the inside, creating a rustic cathedral effect in the center’s great room. The great room will be the scene of lectures, musical events, art displays and much more. The upper level, in addition to the great room, will also have a wet lab, classroom and boardroom.
This center will become a veritable gateway to the wonderland that is the surrounding landscape, and be linked to the Platte River and the prairie bluffs with approximately six miles of trails. Our SOAR youth day camp program will convene here. Perhaps in the future we can get young people from other regions, states or countries to come and have the SOAR experience like the hundreds of local children that have had so many unforgettable SOAR memories during the past 16 years. We plan to host community events and festivals, and convene working groups exploring new ways to come together to solve natural resource issues. We will host seminars and workshops on ecological restoration, one of Prairie Plains’s specialties and a fast-growing worldwide concern. The center is located on one of the most beautiful places in Nebraska. When completed, it will enable thousands of people to discover that beauty and the wonders of creation on site. The list of educational opportunities is endless as potential programs for all ages can focus on virtually any connection between the land and people’s lives.
In September the Prairie Plains Resource Institute Board of Directors dedicated the new center as the Charles L. Whitney Education Center in honor of my father, who passed away in July. He was an attorney in Aurora who plied his trade for 61 years. He was also a servant to his country, leaving law school in 1942 for a stint in the Navy, serving in the Pacific. In his community after the war he served for 30 years as the local veterans service officer and also 30 years as Aurora city clerk. In 1980 he was responsible for incorporating Prairie Plains, and subsequently, for helping to establish the foundation of seven land trust properties acquired since then. He was always the source of wise and prudent advice. I was lucky to be able to share my work and passion with him, and he was more than willing to give his assistance unconditionally. Perhaps the greatest organizational influence he offered, coming out of the Depression and war as he did, was his advice to build a strong foundation, adhere to the stated public purposes, be frugal, be practical, be of service to the community, and work hard. He will be missed, but Prairie Plains will honor his legacy in its work. These also sound like the sorts of things one could learn in a barn.
In a later issue of Prairie Fire, Bill Whitney will tell the story of his organization, Prairie Plains, in more detail. All photos in this article courtesy of the author.