You can learn an enormous amount of colorful information about a state’s farm and ranch traditions by studying haylofts, crib barns and horse stalls. The character of Montana barns speaks to generations of hard work, as early settlers balanced their lives against the cruel forces of nature and the generous bounty of the land. The quality craftsmanship and variety of styles are a testament to the diversity of workers who populated the state: Kentucky horse breeders, French Canadian stockmen, Scandinavian immigrants, Italian stonemasons.
“Hand Raised: The Barns of Montana,” a finalist in the Art and Photography and Best Nonfiction categories of the High Plains Book Awards, illuminates the unique agricultural history of Montana. Divided into regional chapters — Western Valleys, Great Divide, Missouri River and the Yellowstone Basin — this coffee table book features 140 of the more than 6,000 known historic barns across the Big Sky, and it includes both contemporary color images by Tom Ferris and vintage photographs.
It is easy to be lured just by the book’s beautiful illustrations, but the featured barns also come with stories, carefully researched by the writing team of Chere Jiusto and Christine Brown. As is often the case with historical nonfiction, the narrative can be somewhat dry, but the facts and nuances of the stories speak for themselves. The result is a volume rich in architectural and historical detail, celebrating the spirit and ingenuity of rural communities and family enterprises.
Through homesteading days and gold rush booms of the 1880s to the agricultural droughts of the 1920s, farmers and ranchers continued to build. As expected, they raised more modest structures in lean years and extravagant, elegant buildings in times of prosperity. Consequently, beyond having strictly utilitarian functions, many barns are also graceful and stately, architecturally grounded in Montana’s scenery.
The authors note that many of these magnificent buildings are disappearing from the landscape and make a call for their preservation. Some of the historic structures remain spry and freshly painted “barn red”; sadly, others are falling into disrepair through neglect and age. It is heartwarming to read of some landowners who are preserving the barns, not strictly for utilitarian reasons but for their sheer beauty and cultural significance.
I’ve always believed that you can uncover a great deal about a society by carefully studying just one of its traditions. “Hand Raised” does a fine job of that; it is a welcome addition to the marvelous history and culture of Montana.
Corby Skinner is the director of the YMCA Writer’s Voice and head wrangler for the 10th annual High Plains BookFest.