HANCOCK COUNTY — On any given day, Gary Kingen can be found roaming his expansive property near McCordsville. The fourth generation farmer is often tending fields or keeping a watchful eye on helpful workers cleaning combines.
Even though the daily activities of the farm are frequently changing, one thing remains steady; the large round barn looming in the distance, its bright red paint popping against the fields of corn and soybeans.
It’s an image Kingen sometimes takes for granted. But occasionally, when the light hits the structure just right or strangers stop to stare from the street, Kingen’s overwhelming fondness for his home comes flooding back.
“I think it’s important to preserve this place,” said Kingen, 62. “My family has always used the barn and the land the same way; there is a huge amount of pride in that statement.”
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Historic barns dot the landscape across Hancock County, standing as a nostalgic reminder of generations of farmers who have worked the land to support their families. In many cases, the structures are passed down from those who erected their walls to the family members who continue the tradition.
For many, life on the farm is all they’ve ever known. It’s all they care to know.
Born and raised on the land originally tended to by his great-grandfather, Kingen has been working in the same spot where his family has made a living since 1903.
He tells stories of family photographs dating back through the decades, and in most of them, the big round barn is prominently featured.
Kingen and his sons now farm more than 3,500 acres of land. This includes the original 360-acre plot that came with the barn.
And Kingen has no plans to leave.
“I can’t imagine ever living anywhere else,” Kingen said. “It’s home, and I love it here.”
The barn, completed around 1900, was originally used for livestock including horses, cattle and hogs.
Two years’ worth of hay for the animals were stored in the loft in the barn’s early days. Rails from a rusted pulley system, once used to move large bales from one place to another, still rim the expansive round ceiling. Today, the barn is used mostly for storage.
But the barn’s significance to the family goes beyond its everyday use; there is history in that barn, a memory of what was and hope for what will be.
“I hope this land and the barn stay in this family forever,” Kingen said. “I would hate to see it slip away.”
Timber to build the barn was cut on site, and builders used greener, moist wood so it could flex to create the barn’s distinct curvature. On the floor, thousands of carefully bowed 1-by-4s mimic the inner rings of a tree. The long, skeletal support beams look more like an ornate bird cage than the inside of a barn.
The structure leans slightly to the right, a slanted reminder of the constant west wind rolling over the fields.
Kingen said sometimes, he’s surprised the barn has lasted more than 100 years, as it’s had a few brushes with disaster in the past.
A windmill was perched on the barn’s cupola shortly after it was built, but it was ripped off in a storm. The windmill — or what was left of it — was found miles away.
Since then, several tornadoes have touched down close to the structure, but each has skirted by without causing significant damage.
And every time, Kingen was thankful.
‘Still a dream’
Robert Frost said he remembers being a young boy and dreaming of living in the home where he grew up in rural Greenfield.
He had precious memories of growing up in the 10-room farmhouse, with the concrete barn a few hundred yards away.
He and his wife were in the process of renovating the structure in the 1960s when disaster struck; a vandal started a fire that gutted the house.
Seeing his family home in ashes is something from which he’s never recovered, but the barn was left untouched, and Frost turned his attention toward preserving what was left of his homestead.
Frost’s grandfather built the structure with his own hands, even making the concrete blocks one by one, Frost said. It was completed in 1911.
As a small child, Frost played in the barn. A tractor he rode as a boy is still stored there. Frost never rebuilt a house on the property, choosing instead to live just a few miles away.
Now 79, he’s spent his entire life close by, hoping to one day make the barn his home.
The barn was continually used for farming until the 1970s. Since then, the barn has fallen into disrepair.
A segment of the barn’s metal roof is missing. The root systems of wild plants have grafted to the walls. The once bright red doors are faded; one hangs from its hinges. A few of the support beams have started to buckle, and the left-behind litter of trespassers can sometimes be found in the loft.
The restoration work would be costly, but it’s a project Frost plans to keep chipping away at. He said he’d doesn’t see himself ever selling.
“I think it would cost a million dollars to build this barn today,” Frost said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t know where the idea came from or even how they did it. I like that my grandfather built this place, and living here is still a dream.”
Seven generations of Christi Corwin-Howard’s family have farmed out of the same barns outside New Palestine.
The farm was established in 1848, 13 years before the beginning of the Civil War. Corwin-Howard has to count on her fingers to keep track when talking about her great-great-great-great-grandfather, who held the same occupation as her husband – a farmer.
“It’s amazing knowing that it’s survived and knowing that it will survive past you,” she said.
Her father, Marlon Corwin, tells stories of family members who walked livestock to Indianapolis.
Scenes from the barnyard are still similar to when the place was built more than 150 years ago. Gone are the hoop skirts of the day, but the squealing pink pigs bound for bacon remain.
He also knows where all the bodies are buried, literally.
“There is actually a family plot right out that way,” he said pointing out towards a patch of woods. “I think it’s pretty neat how this place has managed to stay in the family for so long.”
In addition to the large barn believed to be built in the 1870s, there are several historic structures peppered throughout the property. Some date back to the time of President Abraham Lincoln, Corwin said.
Inside the small grainery, family members like to point out the hand-scraped support beams held together by wooden pegs.
Hack marks from a long-lost axe can still be seen. Beams from another barn were saved and are now displayed above the family’s fireplace, a reminder of the connection to the land.
“These barns are our pride and joy,” Corwin said. “They help make our living. We couldn’t do it without them.”
Heart of the farm
Brian Bentley just recently returned to the farmland of his youth, located in southeastern Greenfield. Now he has big plans to save the family’s historic barn, which turns 100 later this year.
“I grew up here, and then moved away, but then, the farm pulled me back,” said Bentley, 49.
Built in 1915, the structure has been in the family for four generations.
The rope swing Bentley used as a child still hangs from the rafters. Tattered from years of neglect, it sways softly in the wind. The same breath of air causes the antique boards to pop and crack, as if the barn is breathing.
Entire tree trunks, with nothing more than their limbs sawed away, still hold up the barn like Atlas and his globe.
Although Bentley has children, he doesn’t know if they’re interested in operating a farm one day.
For him it’s more about bringing the barn back to life, even if he’s the last in the family to enjoy it.
“This barn is the heart of the farm; it’s the landmark,” he said. “Sometimes I just come out here and have some quiet time to myself. It brings me peace. It feels like an anchor, this barn. It brought me right back where I started — and (it’s) probably where I’ll finish.”
Owner: Gary Kingen
Year built: Circa 1900
Location: Rural McCordsville
Owner: Brian Bentley
Year built: 1915
Location: Southeastern Greenfield
Owner: Robert Frost
Year built: 1911
Location: Rural Greenfield
Owner: Christi Corwin-Howard
Year Built: Circa 1848
Location: Rural New Palestine