Mich. families awarded for preserving century-old barns

Danielle Woodward
Traverse City Record-Eagle

Traverse City — On the outskirts of Maple City, a bright red barn towers prominently over acres of farmland. The century-old town staple boasts a family name that’s hard to miss.

In part, because the “Noonan” family name is splashed in bright white letters across the siding, the Traverse City Record-Eagle reported. But also because four generations of Noonans have lived and worked inside the barn’s four walls raising cattle to earn the family legacy.

“Our family has always farmed,” said David Noonan. “When I got out of school and got married, my wife and I moved into that farm, and we’ve been farming ever since.”

Noonan inherited the barn from his father, who bought the 80-acre spread in 1969. He’s since passed it down to his son, David Lee, who lives there with his wife and children. Now at 107 years old, the barn is bigger and stronger than ever, equipped to house nearly 200 steers.

But that’s not without effort from Noonan and his wife, Sandra. The two regularly juggled daily farm duties with the barn’s renovations — including two additions, a roof replacement, new doors and several fresh coats of paint — since moving there in 1977.

“It’s just something that we’re very proud of,” Noonan said. “We’ve always taken care of it and update it when we can. It’s always been my pride and joy.”

The family’s hard work paid off. The Michigan Barn Preservation Network awarded them “Barn of the Year” in May for Continued Family Agricultural Use alongside Carl and Suzanne Lehto’s barn on Old Mission Peninsula.

It marked both families’ first “Barn of the Year” award in the 21 years Michigan Barn Preservation Network has been giving it out. The nonprofit launched the contest shortly after its inception as an incentive to preserve local barns, said board member Keith Anderson.

“It was a group of barn lovers who were concerned about the alarming rate at which these barns were falling down,” Anderson said.

Competing barns must have been built before 1957. They must either be still in use for agriculture purposes or adapted for another private or commercial operation and still be in use.

The Lehtos and Noonans both fit the bill, but their farms stood out among their category’s eight entries for separate reasons.

Judges were drawn to the Lehto’s 105-year-old barn for its exterior and the history behind it. The small red barn was erected from lumber hauled by horses to the site from nearby timberland.

It served as a dairy barn and housing for migrant farmers before the Lehtos bought it. They’ve since revamped it with a new steel roof, some minor repairs and fresh coats of red paint.

But it was their latest renovation that caught the most attention: an 8-foot-by-8-foot quilt design painted onto the side of the barn.

“It’s very impressive,” Anderson said of the barn. “It looks great.”

Carl Lehto said he and his wife painted four images onto the quilt to represent their family: A cross, the American flag, a Finnish heritage symbol and the logo of their favorite farming manufacturer. The barn has since been featured in a handful of calendars and books, including on on barn quilts, he said.

“People like to take pictures of it,” Lehto said. “It gives you a good feeling. I’m proud of it.”

The Noonan’s entry, on the other hand, caught judges’ attention with its longstanding function as a cattle farm.

“Unlike most barns, it’s still being used for what it’s originally intended to be for,” Anderson said. “They’ve preserved it through four generations. It’s an interesting history.”

That history is the only life Noonan has ever known. He and his wife raised three children on the farm, and the barn was part of that upbringing, he said. It was a space to churn butter, milk the family cow and house their children’s pet pigs and cattle.

Noonan said he maintained the barn all those years for his children to someday make similar memories in it with their own families. When his son graduated high school, Noonan moved out and passed the torch to him.

“It’s always been our pride and joy, and now it’s my son’s pride and joy,” Noonan said.

He and his son now run the cattle farm together with no plans to give the barn up anytime soon.

“I think it’s going to be there for another 100 years,” Noonan said.