HANCOCK COUNTY — Hidden gems mark six generations of family history on a farm owned by Brendon Hartnett of Fortville.
Two barns at the 1836 homestead could have been lost were it not for those who maintained them over the years. Sliding open the bright white door of his main barn, Hartnett unveils the intricate handiwork and wooden pegs that have held together the structure’s historic interior logs for more than 100 years.
And while the old barn has held plenty of sentimental value to the Fortville family, state lawmakers are now beginning to realize just how precious these structures are to Indiana’s agricultural landscape.
Two bills are advancing in the Indiana General Assembly that would waive property taxes on certain historic barns, putting more money into the pockets of their owners who could make preservations for generations to come.
“These older barns – they’re falling down,” said Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, who wrote one of the bills.
Cherry, a farmer himself, said barns built more than 75 years ago are functionally obsolete. Not big enough to hold modern-day equipment, it doesn’t make sense anymore to tax them when Hoosiers could be using the money toward new roofs or siding.
“A lot of people say since you can’t use them, they’re not painting them or putting a roof on or what have you. And they’re either tearing them down or letting them fall down,” Cherry said. “My goal is to save as many of these barns as we can, because the rural landscape will be changing. Other states have done a better job at preserving them than Indiana.”
Cherry’s legislation, House Bill 1046, would allow counties to adopt a 100 percent property tax deduction on so-called mortise and tenon barns, described for the wooden-peg structures built prior to 1936.
The bill would also require the state’s office of tourism to promote historic barns. Cherry would like to see Indiana start historic statewide barn tours, similar to a program that’s taken off in Iowa over the past 13 years.
The bill passed in the House last week, 91-2, and will next be heard by the Senate. A similar Senate version, written by Sen. John Waterman, R-Shelburn, passed unanimously out of that chamber last week. Whether one will actually become law is still uncertain, but Cherry said it’s encouraging the idea is gaining traction this session.
For Hartnett and his father-in-law, Tom Flanagan, the idea makes complete sense. The historic family farm’s main barn is used mostly for storage now, holding hay and “eight million bats,” Hartnett jokes.
“For us, the way we do things today, it’s just not practical,” Flanagan said. “If it wasn’t for the historic value, we would have let it go years ago.”
The farm has been in the family since 1836, and the barn was built in 1911 or before – depending on whether the date etched in the concrete is accurate. New white siding was added in the 1970s, and in recent years water and electricity were re-run to the structure.
A smaller barn holding 18 alpacas and a few guard dogs was built around the same time, its original wooden siding still present.
Hartnett, who married into the farming family and bought the property two years ago, said now that his two daughters represent the sixth generation, it’s special that he and wife Kimberly keep the old structures going.
While Hartnett said he doesn’t mind paying the property taxes on the structures, any break would help his budget in the future.
“This is the first time I’ve ever owned anything like this,” he added. “It’s hard to know what it will take to maintain it.”
Gem-area resident Mary-Jo Shaw has a similar story. Her property has been in the family since 1835, and one barn has hand-hewn beams and wooden pegs that would probably qualify it for the tax break. Recently preserved with a new roof and siding, Shaw said it was for the “looks and the nostalgia” to keep the barn standing, and she hopes to restore more barns on her property.
But Shaw understands that not every Hoosier can do that, especially when old barns can hardly be used anymore for modern farming equipment.
“It can’t be used really for today’s equipment. Everything’s too big,” she said. “I think (the tax break) would be very helpful. If you have that extra incentive to restore them, then maybe more people would. We’re already thinking about doing a couple more (barns), just for the looks, because you really hate to tear down history. It’s sad.”
Cherry himself has a story to tell about an old family barn. Cherry said that 10 years ago, he agreed to have a barn removed from his family farm and taken to an organization in Texas, which was setting up a site for historic barns.
“It’s just one of those things; we couldn’t do anything to make it usable,” he said. “It was just one of those things to keep it for nostalgia, for sentimental reasons.”
While Cherry still fondly remembers that old barn – and having to duck every time he walked in because of its low beams – he’s glad at least it is being preserved elsewhere. Still, he said, similar barns could be kept in Indiana, and the state’s agricultural heritage could be preserved if more Hoosiers were able to restore their structures.
“A lot of people say, ‘Why put a $15,000 roof on it? It would just cause me to pay more taxes. Why not have the thing torn down? I can put $15,000 on another building and it would be more useful,’” Cherry said. “I’m just trying to take restrictions away, why people wouldn’t want to take care of the barn.”
This is the third year in a row Cherry has introduced his bill, but the first year it’s gone anywhere in the legislative process. While Cherry hasn’t talked with Sen. Waterman about his version, he’s pleased the idea is gaining traction, and he’s hopeful this is the year it will be signed into law.
“Finally, it stuck.”