Rich Tyler was looking for a place where his kids could enjoy the out-of-doors when he heard about a nine-acre farmstead near Downey, Iowa. The property included some rundown outbuildings and an empty farmhouse that showed signs of vandalism. But it was the barn that caught his eye.
“I’ve always been interested in history and architecture and the barn was a mess, but I knew it was special,” he says. “I didn’t have carpentry skills and I didn’t know if there was grant support. I just knew this was a treasure.” A cautious man with no farm background, Tyler visited five times more before word of another interested party finally convinced him to buy. In the nearly 20 years since, the barn has proven to be a treasure many times over.
Built in 1883 by master builder Frank Longerbeam, Tyler calls the structure “an architectural wonder.”
“It’s one of a kind,” he says. “It’s made like a bird cage, with no central support.” Eight ribs, each composed of 18 laminated 1” by 6” boards, hold up the roof. Longerbeam, a self-taught carpenter, may have gotten the idea for the laminated beams from a nearby rectangular barn constructed in the 1870s. But the Secrest barn, named for its owner, prosperous farmer Joshua Secrest, upped the difficulty level— it’s got eight sides, rather than four. It was likely built by first constructing an arch with two beams on the ground, then raising it with ropes and pulleys; the subsequent six beams were then raised one at a time.
The barn was continually used from the time it was built into the 1960s. Its primary function was to store 200 tons of loose hay in its massive upper level. The hay was dropped through wooden chutes and then piled onto a cart. From there, the cart moved down a track and hay was pitchforked to the 32 horses and 16 cows waiting below.
The barn had been empty for more than 25 years when Tyler took ownership in 1993, and restoring it required efforts both major and minor. Two of the biggest initial repairs were fixing its leaky roof and straightening the building, which leaned to the east. “I really didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have the tools or skills, so for complicated and dangerous things I hired contractors,” says Tyler. He paid them with grant support — thanks to his university job as a professor of otolaryngology, he is an experienced grant writer — but also found that many grants required matching funds. These have come largely from his pocket.
“It’s meant financial commitment from me, but it’s my hobby,” he says. “And one of the most rewarding things about the whole experience for me is that I’ve met so many people by sharing the barn.”
Some of those are the volunteers who have helped with renovation. For years, in the warmer weather, he held monthly restoration days and people would stop by the farmstead to help. Tyler made lunch and worked alongside them — many have become close friends.
“Sometimes there would be just a couple of people and sometimes there were 30 or 40,” he says. “They’re usually people who care about the barn — they’re interested in history or farming or they’re a photographer or a painter and so there’s some motivation for being there. I’ve gotten to know lots of nice people with diverse interests and that’s been really helpful.” Tyler’s gotten both hands-on and grant support from Friends of Historic Preservation and the State Historical Society of Iowa.
Volunteers needn’t be versed in farm history to be of use. For the past 15 years, members of Phi Kappa Nu fraternity from nearby Cornell College have made the Secrest Barn their personal cause. High school students participating in the Upward Bound program at the University of Iowa have scraped and painted, put up shelves, and repaired walls. “You get guys from New York City who’ve never seen a barn before, but they work hard,” says Tyler.
The barn and its renovation have changed Tyler’s life. Once uncomfortable with heights, he’s learned to climb the suspended staircase to the cupola, 75 feet above the ground, in order to make repairs. He’s filled the interior with old farm equipment — feed sacks, barbed wire, wagons, and tack for horses — purchased from yard sales and donated by friends. Once, he found himself looking up the number for a raccoon exterminator. “I thought, ‘Never in my life did I think I’d be doing this,’” he says.
Though his skill set has grown, it’s the expansion of his social network that’s brought the most pleasure. He gives tours to schoolchildren and lets nonprofit organizations meet in the barn free-of-charge. He’s started renting the building for parties, barbecues, reunions, and other gatherings, using the income to maintain the building. Weddings, which used to happen two or three times each year at the Secrest barn, are increasing — 15 are scheduled for this year alone. A square dance in the barn has become a tradition at the otolaryngology department’s annual meeting. “Now when I travel around the world, giving talks about my research, the first question people ask isn’t about my work,” he says. “They want to know about the barn.
“Being able to share the barn and see people appreciate it is really satisfying,” says Tyler. “We’re so busy with our day-to-day lives and if we don’t take time to think about things and to preserve them, they’ll be gone. The barn has taken me in directions I hadn’t planned on. But it’s certainly been worthwhile.”
A lifelong sewer/knitter and former weaver/spinner, Linzee Kull McCray, a.k.a. lkmccray, is a writer and editor living in Iowa. She feels fortunate to meet and write about people, from scientists to stitchers, who are passionate about their work. Her freelance writing appears in Quilts and More, Stitch, UPPERCASE, American Patchwork and Quilting and more. For more textile musings, visit her blog.