By Matt Reese
It was a frigid February Saturday morning when the buzzing of a string of text messages on my phone led to a sick, sad feeling in the pit of my stomach. The old family barn at my brother’s home had caught fire overnight and was a total loss.
As children, the barn — likely built in the 1870s using some of the last old growth timber in the area — was an incredible castle for play, hay fort construction and exploration. As I got older it housed 4-H projects and was the location of many hours of labor side-by-side with family. It was a place to gather with friends and a lonely perch in the haymow offered an ideal setting for youthful daydreams. As an adult, a return to the confines of the barn where generations of my ancestors toiled offered a unique comfort and cemented a deep connection with the family legacy of the property.
I must confess I went through a bit of a grieving process that February day, and several days that followed. As I slogged through a sustained melancholy, though, I kept returning to one thought: thank the good Lord for Robert Kroeger.
I learned of Kroeger’s unique project in 2018 and visited with him for a story. Though his background was far removed from rural Ohio, the retired dentist from Cincinnati made it his mission to write an essay and paint a picture of at least one barn in each of Ohio’s counties.
“My goal is to go to each of Ohio’s 88 counties, paint some barns and preserve history,” he told me in our 2018 interview. “I have never been much of a history student, but I now appreciate what the pioneers in Ohio did. They were very courageous in coming out here looking for new lands. Sometimes they lived in the barn. The barn was the moneymaker so to speak. They cleverly constructed the barns using correct woods and putting up barns that hold together to this day. They knew a lot more than people today think they did. Without them we wouldn’t have Ohio. It is part of the past I’d like to preserve.”
At the time, with just a few counties under his belt, the task seemed somewhat daunting for the urbanite with few rural Ohio connections. Kroeger had written a fair amount previously, but taught himself how to paint for the project using palette knives and oil paint in the oil impasto technique. He also learned how to handmake frames for his works using old wood from the actual barns in his paintings.
To better navigate rural Ohio without trespassing and add efficiency to the process, Kroeger developed a system of working with local “barn scouts.” After learning more about his need for finding barns in northwest Ohio, I suggested several people for him to talk with, including my father in Hancock County. With my father as a “barn scout,” of course the old Reese family barn was on the list of several stops in the area and the very fortunate subject of one of his beautiful paintings.
Amid the grief I felt from that recent frigid February morning, I went to Kroeger’s website: barnart.weebly.com. I’d found that Kroeger had been very busy since 2018 capturing many more than 88 barns around Ohio in his beautiful artwork. I scrolled through county after county of what is a truly amazing collection of Ohio’s barns lovingly crafted by the retired urban dentist. I was forced to contend with a lump in my throat as I read through his essay about my family’s barn. The version of the painting Kroeger gave to my parents will be cherished by generations, as will the memories of its subject.
Whether he realizes it or not, Kroeger will inevitably be a similar blessing to many others as more beautiful old barns disappear from Ohio’s rural landscape. And, beyond these efforts, Kroeger works with a charity in each county to support through the local auction of his paintings.
After extended delays due to COVID-19, Kroeger is celebrating the completion of his project with the release of his new book Historic Barns of Ohio in a series of events around the state where he shares his experiences surrounding his love of Ohio’s barns. The events will include book signings and an opportunity to purchase his paintings from the community to raise proceeds for local charities as well. He is kicking off the series with events in Champaign County (https://www.robertkroeger.com/event/147817/champaign-county-historical-society) and Hancock County (https://www.robertkroeger.com/event/136001/monthly-brown-bag-lecture-the-ohio-barn-project-with-dr-robert-kroeger and bwfinaldrive.com/auctions/6313-Crawford-and-Hancock-County-Barn-Art-Auction-) on March 31 and April 1.
In his most unique journey, Kroeger is not really sure how many miles he covered or even how much money he raised for historical societies, farm organizations, or 4-H around the state. I hope he does know, though, his incredible efforts to preserve Ohio’s rich rural history will be cherished long after the barns themselves are gone — a truly beautiful gift to rural Ohio.