ASHFIELD - Barns can define a rural landscape. But in Massachusetts, where farm fields and woodlots once stood from Cape Cod to the Berkshires, barns are vanishing with the decline in local agriculture.
As these buildings succumb to weather, age, and gravity, the loss is more than visual. They also house a wealth of history and culture: Barns of the early 1800s displayed the traditions of immigrants' home countries - mainly timber-frame English architecture in this region. A century later they more often modeled the latest thinking about efficiency and sanitation.
Whatever their form, barns mark the spots where farming persists, chiefly in the central and western parts of the state. In the region known as the Highlands - 1,100 square miles straddling the hilly terrain between the Connecticut River and the northern Berkshires - their plainspoken architec ture is on display along state routes and back roads.
It is there that we trace an approximately 40-mile loop through the towns of Conway, Ashfield, Goshen, Cummington, and Plainfield, taking in some of the finest barns of western New England. The turnaround point is the William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Cummington, owned by the Trustees of Reservations. Although the buildings are closed for the season, the grounds remain open, and a trail circling through 300-year-old groves of hardwoods makes for a grand leg stretch. The route also takes in several roadside eateries and farm stands.
The other land and barns along the trip are privately owned, and it's bad country manners - not to mention trespassing - to pull into a stranger's driveway or stop to pet the livestock.
Route 116 flows in concert with several streams and rivers of the vast Connecticut River watershed. At the beginning, after turning off Routes 5 and 10, the road carves a straightaway through the outskirts of South Deerfield and winds through hemlock forest and open fields to Conway. Watch for barns with gambrel (double-sloped) roofs sprouting metal cones along the ridgepole. These are wind-powered ventilators, first introduced in the 1920s, which pull air and moisture out of the ground-floor milking stations. Increased airflow, advocated by farming journals of the late 1800s, helped to preserve wood and prevent disease. As Thomas Hubka, a New England barns scholar and architecture professor, notes, gambrel barns represented a page-turn, introducing mass-produced materials and more overhead space.
Conway center, about a mile from here on Route 116, features a neoclassical marble library erected in 1901 by Marshall Field, the department-store king, who was born here. Baker's Country Store, on the left as the road crests a hill, stocks provisions, sells gas, and serves breakfast and lunch. Continuing north to Ashfield, 116 passes a newly rebuilt covered bridge on the left, then follows the South River through woods and open fields dotted with several barns, including English- and New England-style barns.
English-style barns, introduced by early settlers, are timber-frame structures with vertical board siding, pitched roofs, a wide door on the eave, or long, side, and few, if any, windows, according to Bonnie Parsons's booklet "Barns in the Highland Communities." Inside they are divided into three framed spaces, or bays. In the 1850s, New Englanders placed wide doors at each gable, or short, end instead of on the long side, creating the New England barn. Among continuing adaptations, interior changes made it more efficient to house livestock in stanchions and drive hay from one end to the other.
A farm stand piled high with pumpkins stands in front of a maize-colored barn complex onRoute 116 in Ashfield. An Italianate cupola on the main building signals a late-19th-century addition. The cupola's louvered vents perform the same function as the later metal roof turbines. A few miles later, as 116 becomes Main Street, graceful Greek Revival buildings emerge, both high-style and humble. Watch for the ornate bell tower on Town Hall. A block north on the right, sharing a sprawling red building with Ashfield Hardware, is Country Pie Pizza, serving lunch and dinner. If hunger doesn't beckon, the charming, jam-packed hardware store is worth exploring.
At the end of Main Street, Route 116 swings left to run concurrent with Route 112 south. Open fields and old farmsteads with barns of many styles and from many periods line both sides of this scenic stretch to Goshen. About a mile later, when 116 splits off to the right, continue straight on 112 south.
Just over the Goshen line, Good Time Stove Co. accosts travelers with a giant tin man, which partially obscures the jumble of buildings behind him: A gambrel-roofed ell, or addition, protrudes from the eave side of an English barn. Tacked to the ell is a shed-roofed lean-to.
Route 112 takes a sharp right as it picks up Route 9 west toward Cummington. A compound of four large red barns, simple English-style boxes with protruding ells and sheds, stands almost flush with the road. Behind them the land tips into a bowl, with the larger barns built into the slope "side-hill" style. Side-hill barns were a late-19th-century innovation that allowed farmers to shovel manure to the lower level, where it could be fetched easily to spread on the fields for fertilizing.
In Cummington a scenic detour leads to the Bryant Homestead, starting with a left off Route 9/112 onto Fairgrounds Road. It bears right as it changes into Dodwells Road. A left onto Potash Hill Road leads straight to Bryant Road and the Homestead. Bryant (1794-1878), a poet who celebrated the natural world, advocated for conservation when cities were just beginning to devour the countryside. The red barn combines parts of the original 1801 structure with piecemeal additions dating from as late as the 1930s. The property makes a good picnic spot, and the Rivulet Trail starts through fields and woods to a mossy-floored old-growth forest.
When it's time to leave, return to Route 112. At the Route 9/112 junction, the Old Creamery, a country store and deli, offers lunch, snacks, or coffee.
Following Route 9/112 right to head southeast, drive less than a mile and make a left onto Main Street and go to Cummington Center, where the Kingman Tavern Historical Museum occupies an eye-catching circa 1800 house-barn complex. Take a left onto Plainfield Road.
A towering barn, dignified in its plain vertical boards, rises at the edge of the east branch of the Westfield River where Plainfield Road begins. Its eave side resembles a watercolor wash, with yellow at the roofline fading to bare gray wood where the siding meets a stone foundation.
Plainfield Road continues for less than five miles, past several stunning old barns, one with a weather vane tilting toward romantic ruin. In another spot, views open in all directions from a sloping field of sunflowers. Eventually, a stop sign looms, and a right onto Route 116 south retraces the route to Ashfield, Conway, South Deerfield, and I-91 south or perhaps to a bed-and-breakfast spotted somewhere along the road.
Jane Roy Brown, a freelance writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at regan-brown.com.