Thousands of people heading to Ag Progress Days this coming week will pass an imposing white barn that has stood since Thomas Jefferson was alive.
This might be the last time people see the aging and storm-damaged structure, which owner Penn State University says is too costly to repair.
Merle Eyer, a local Granger and enthusiast for old barns, is still hoping to save the 200-year-old barn from demolition.
“Something of this historical significance and this type of craftsmanship should be preserved for future generations to learn from and appreciate,” Eyer said.
The post-and-beam wooden bank barn was built in 1818, and a number of additions and modifications have been made over the years.
For much of the 20th century, the barn was owned by Millie Kepler, who farmed the property for about 60 years after her husband’s early death.
According to Eyer, Kepler stored her potato crop and housed her sheep in the barn.
Penn State bought the Kepler farm in the 1990s. It’s one of several properties pieced together over decades to form the university’s 2,000-acre Rock Springs research farm, where the Ag Progress Days trade show is held.
Motorists heading west out of Pine Grove Mills on Route 45 will see the barn on the right side of the road. A sign out front identifies Gate A of the research center.
The barn is just before the Livestock Evaluation Center and 2 miles from the entrance to Ag Progress Days.
The approximate address is 1208 W. Pine Grove Road, Pennsylvania Furnace.
In a recent visit to the barn — unsanctioned by the university — Eyer thought the building’s foundation looked intact, though he said the stones needed repointing and replastering.
He noticed half a dozen grain bins on the upper floor and hay still in the racks below.
The roof, parts of which were lost in storms over the past two years, had the most glaring damage.
“When you have a 200-year-old structure, it definitely needs some help, but I felt perfectly comfortable inside the barn,” Eyer said. “I didn’t think it was going to collapse on me or anything.”
Eyer reported his findings to the university, which he said promptly strung caution tape around the property.
Eyer has spoken several times with university officials, and he said that Steve Loerch, a senior associate dean, has agreed to put demolition on hold.
In a statement, the dean’s office of the College of Agricultural Sciences did not mention tearing the barn down, but also gave no indication that it plans to save the building.
“With cost estimates of repairing this structure approaching $1 million, we do not feel we can justify the use of state dollars for that purpose,” the dean’s office said.
An engineering firm hired by the college found the barn to be unsound and unsafe, and called repair unfeasible.
Because of concerns about employee safety and machinery damage, the college is not currently using the barn, according to the statement.
Penn State trustee Abe Harpster said he doesn’t want to see the barn torn down, but he understands the position the university is in.
“Nobody wants to see it disappear, but nobody wants to pay for it either,” said Harpster, who farms west of Rock Springs.
Harpster has brought up the barn with people in the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Office of Physical Plant, though he’s trying to stay in his lane as a trustee.
Harpster, who considers the barn a local landmark, agrees that the structure needs a lot of work.
The floor is in such bad shape that he wouldn’t want to drive equipment on it.
And given the modifications, it’s not clear how much, if any, of the barn is part of the original construction, he said.
Harpster and his family have many buildings similar to the Kepler barn on their own farm, and they control costs by maintaining the buildings themselves.
The university, with its more costly official procedures, doesn’t have that option, he said.
Still, Harpster worries that if the Kepler barn is torn down, other old, deteriorating barns at the research farm could fall like century-old dominoes.
“I think they would save it if they could come up with a good purpose for it,” he said.
Exactly what that would be is unclear. The barn isn’t configured for modern livestock production, and it would be too expensive to retrofit it as office space, Harpster said.
After the storm damage to the roof, Eyer thinks this year’s Ag Progress Days, when thousands of farming enthusiasts will pass by the barn, might be the best chance to draw support for the old structure.
He’s been contacting politicians and people with connections to the university, as well as the state Grange lobbyist, who is looking into grant funding to restore the barn.
Though his success is far from certain, Eyer still thinks the big white barn deserves to add more chapters to its long history.