Markham Starr,
Barns of Connecticut
(Wesleyan University Press, 2013)

What a beautiful and informative tribute! Photographer Markham Starr has created a lovely book that will add elegance to any coffee table or personal library. Yet its narrative details will also prove useful to historians and researchers.

While full-color photographs appear throughout the book, the first third (49 pages) is made up mostly of text. Labeled merely an "Introduction," this section describes the history and construction of the English barn, which is the dominant style in Connecticut. Starr covers the differences between building barns and building houses; and he outlines the materials and tools that were necessary for these jobs, back in the early days of the settlers. Line drawings and schematics help to reveal the details of techniques used in framing and joinery. I'll have to admit that he lost me about three-quarters of the way through these pages. I just couldn't visualize some of the work, especially at those times when no prompting illustrations were present. Perhaps a glossary of basic construction terms could have been a useful addition here, even though Starr generally defines concepts as he introduces them. Still, including this narrative expands the audience that will find value in this volume. It may help to answer questions that folks will have as they view the photographs or as they visit barns in person.

The rest of the book is a panorama of full-color photographs of Connecticut barns. You can probably imagine what happens when a veteran photographer approaches a topic like this one. Stunning long view landscapes are interspersed with close-up studies of hinges and elevators and porticoes. They represent the various seasons as well, although fall scenes appear to be absent: probably because the colorful northern leaves may have provided visual competition and would have distracted us from our primary focus on the wooden structures.

One slight disappointment is that the locations of all of these barns remain pseudo-anonymous, as per the wishes of the owners. Starr identifies them in an appendix merely by county name, with a tally that represents seven of Connecticut's eight counties (omitting Fairfield, the one closest to New York City). Intrigued readers will have to venture out and look around for themselves to discover their favorites on their own. But it's also a great prompt to explore the countryside.

Other photographers and historians have approached the subject of barns in a number of regions across America. In most cases, they have chosen to either make photo albums or to be informational. One or the other. For example, on my nearest bookshelf is the chunky second edition of Robert F. Ensminger's The Pennsylvania Barn: Its Origin, Evolution, & Distribution in North America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). It's a 348-page text that explores the origins, evolution, diffusion and distribution of the type of barn most often found in Pennsylvania. Black-and-white photos, line drawings, and maps accompany the text. The book certainly provides many useful details. But it's not as browseable or as beautiful as Markham Starr's Barns of Connecticut. I believe that Starr has hit upon the right combination of the two.

Whenever we trace our family trees, each one of us can reach back far enough to unearth agricultural roots. It may take only a generation or two to do so. Paging through this book quickly takes us back to these times, and it may help to jog our own fond memories of visits to relatives and to family farms of the past. Who can resist playing in a hay loft? Do you remember what it smelled like?

There could be no greater triumph for Markham Starr and this book than to get people off the fast and furious interstates and parkways and to start looking around and "seeing" Connecticut. They need to experience the state as a place of rich countryside and fascinating history, and not just as a pass-through on the way to Massachusetts or to New York. Barns of Connecticut is a book for both residents and travelers. The more they look, the more they will find. (And by the way: this book smells pretty darned good, too!)

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Corinne H. Smith

18 January 2014

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