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Gary Wilson helped start the first Historic Hancock County Barn Tour.

Old barns give new life to agricultural outreach

As agriculture scrambles to reconnect consumers with their food through social media and other modern technology, the Hancock Historical Museum in Findlay has found great success doing quite the opposite. As it turns out, old barns have proven to be exceptional tools for educating today’s consumers about the importance of agriculture.

The Hancock Historical Museum’s Historic Barn Tour has proven to be surprisingly successful at not only helping people reconnect with their agricultural past, but also providing a much-needed rural-urban connection with modern agriculture. The idea got its start with former Hancock County Extension educator Gary Wilson, who began serving on the Hancock Historical Museum board after retiring.

“I am the token farm guy on the board. When I started on the board in 2012, my first priority was the barn tour,” Wilson said. “As an experiment we used my barn and five barns around it for the tour in 2013. We were hoping for a couple hundred people and we were just amazed. We had 700 people come out.”

It seems that old barns hold an appeal for city and country dwellers alike. The inherent appeal of these historic structures provides the draw for the tour, while the present day owners provide the modern connection to agriculture.

“The average person just does not have a clue about agriculture, even in rural Ohio. Our neighbors live out here and they drive past these barns everyday but don’t understand agriculture at all,” Wilson said. “This tour gives them a connection.”

Sarah Sisser, the Hancock Historical Museum executive director, knows this from first-hand experience.

“I have zero agricultural background. I was born and raised in Findlay but really had little connection to the outlying county and no connection to agriculture. Now having done this tour for three years, I have made a lot of friends in the county and connections with agriculture. I have learned loads about our agricultural heritage and the struggles now of the small family farms and what they are facing. It has been quite the learning curve for me and when I am driving through the county I certainly have a much better awareness of what is going on and how vital agriculture still is to Hancock County,” she said. “I see two things happening on the tour. It is kind of a reunion for everyone in the county and they love to hear the family stories of the farms. They are very interested in the history of the properties and talking with the owners. We also see people coming from the cities and they are so intrigued about talking to the farmers about what they are doing.”

The barns on the tour are chosen for their appeal and proximity to each other.

“Each year we focus on a different part of the county and we have seen some real different nuances in the barns because of that. This year the barns happen to be considerably older than some of the other barns we have featured on the tour. Several are pre Civil War barns this year. This year we have seven barns on the tour. In the past we have had six,” Sisser said. “The seventh barn this year is a little different. People won’t have a lot of access to it. The structure is in poor condition and may not survive much longer. It shows people what it takes to preserve these historic structures and what an owner is faced with in trying to preserve them. Every year we have had a really good mix of barns. Some are still necessary outbuildings on active family farms. In other instances they have been rehabilitated and adaptively reused in different ways.”

The tours have also been successful because the barns are only part of the attraction.

“We have different activities going on at each barn stop on the tour. This year we have a quilt show, live music and food vendors. We have a lot of modern equipment and antique equipment too on the tours,” she said. “This year we have a stop focused on the ancient history of the area and how the geology of the area contributed to the agricultural development of Hancock County. We have Rob Burner on the tour and his children do a lot with 4-H animals. I had no idea what goes into winning with animals in 4-H and they have a cold room for the calves that is kept at 55 degrees. I know people will be intrigued by those things.”

The tours also really try to involve the local community as much as possible.

“We try to make it hyper local,” Sisser said. “Lots of other entities benefit from the traffic in that part of the county including local small businesses and the schools that set up concession stands to raise money for the FFA chapters.”

The event features points of interest for all ages and is designed to be family friendly.

“We are seeing a real mix of ages on the tour. The first year it was more of an older crowd, but last year there was a significant increase of kids and young families coming out. This is a great day for families to spend out in the county and learn a lot while having a lot of fun,” Sisser said. “Even the kids raised here in Hancock County have very little connection to the farm any more. We have a lot of children coming on the tour. It is free for kids and it has a real educational purpose.”

The success of the tour has gotten statewide attention.

“There actually are not a lot of barn tours in Ohio. Ours being an annual event is pretty unique and it has been really successful in its reach. For the last two years we had over 700 people attend both years from all over the state and from outside of the state,” Sisser said. “The Ohio State Historic Preservation Office recognized us last year, which is a preservation related endeavor housed within the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus. In 2014, the Historic Barn Tour was awarded the Ohio State Historic Preservation Office’s Public Education and Excellence Award and Ohio History Connection CEO Burt Logan called the tour a ‘model program for the state.’”

The Friends of Ohio Barns organization has also really been helpful with the tours by providing experts to help assess the historical significance of the barns on the tours.

“They come out six months prior to the tour. They walk through all of the barns, date the barns, and tell us about how they were constructed,” Sisser said. “That group has several timber-framing experts in their ranks. This year they will be a part of the tour. They are bringing a model of a barn and will do a little barn raising demonstration.”

The attention generated by the Barn Tour has opened up new avenues for historic preservation in the county as well.

“We have involved the county in the museum’s programming in ways that we never have before. We do separate a bus tour of the barn quilt trail in the county. We also received a grant from the Ohio Humanities Council as a direct result of this tour and we started recording the oral histories of the Century Farms in our county,” Sisser said. “The success of this one event has translated into other avenues of programming for our museum and the county.”

The Museum will host its third annual Historic Barn Tour on Saturday, Sept. 12 from 10-4. It is a self-guided tour of seven historic barns in western Hancock County. Pre-sale tickets for $10 are available at the Hancock Historical Museum and sponsor locations in Findlay. Tickets can be purchased online at http://historicbarntour.brownpapertickets.com. For more information and a map of the tour, visit hancockhistoricalmuseum.org or call 419-423-4433.

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