Ohio's bicentennial may have come and gone, but visitors to its bicentennial barns just keep coming.
Originally conceived as a cheap way to advertise the state's 200th birthday in 2003, the barn painting project quickly took on a life of its own, as bicentennial logos were painted on a barn in each of the state's 88 counties. Owners applied for the honor.
"Barn groupies" followed painter Scott Hagan as he painted logos on 89 barns (one was destroyed by a tornado after it was painted, hence the extra barn). Barn tourism developed, with many folks traveling around the state to photograph each and every structure. And on Jan. 1, everyone thought, the project would fade into the past.
But as the state entered a new year, a funny thing happened: Barn tourists, unconcerned that the bicentennial year had ended, continued to visit the structures, take photos for their scrapbooks, and see the state.
"I figured, when it was over, that would be it," Mr. Hagan said. "It's 2004, almost 2005, and people are still stopping at them."
"Every weekend, there's somebody stopping by," said Jim Lowe, owner of the Ottawa County barn. The structure has belonged to his family since 1930. "I don't get to talk to too many of them. They're in and out before you know it."
Mark Schreiber, who owns the Defiance County barn, knows what Mr. Lowe means. "I get a few people sporadically who pull off the road and take a picture," he said. "They tend to flit in and flit out."
"We have had a few visitors in the last couple months, though not nearly as many as we get during the summer," said Philip Zuver, who owns the Williams County barn. "Most people stop on the weekends while trying to see several barns in a day. It's hard to say just how many, as the best place to take a picture is from the highway, so most people don't even stop in. I see a lot of people just pulling up, jumping out, snapping a picture, and then they are on their way."
Nevertheless, the demand for the bicentennial barns remains strong: so strong that folks in Hocking County recently paid Mr. Hagan about $1,650 to paint his 90th barn to replace the county's original bicentennial barn, which was razed to make room for a new gas station.
Why paint a logo that's already obsolete?
"The local guys wanted it," said Roger Shaw, who owns the Hocking Hills Market and on whose property the newly painted barn stands. "I don't think the year has anything to do with it. And they're beautiful. It's a work of art. It's a great honor to have one."
The fact that the barn helps draw tourists to an area that depends on tourism for its livelihood doesn't hurt.
"Not a day goes by that someone doesn't come by and take a picture of it," Mr. Shaw said. "The day they painted the barn, there was a gentleman and his wife here. They said, 'We're just out looking at every bicentennial barn in the state.' "
Lots of folks have spent weeks doing just that, including Norm and Shannon Bash of Port Clinton. The two became interested in the project after reading an article in The Blade about the barn in Ottawa County. They became hooked during a road trip to Indiana. On their way home, they photographed several of the structures.
In September, 2002, the two drove to the Lucas County bicentennial barn on South Crissey Road near Airport Highway to watch Mr. Hagan paint the structure. Since then, they have a photo collection of all of them.
"It took about a year and a half, two years," Mr. Bash said. "There were a couple of times when we took a week and did chunks of the state."
During that time, he estimates, he took between 3,000 and 4,000 photographs. "I used both digital and 35-millimeter to do all the barns, so if there was a problem I had a backup," he explained.
Besides the beauty of the barns, the human urge to collect accounts for much of the tourism, several people said.
"Seeing all the barns and having your photo taken in front of them - that's the collector's mentality," said Christina Wilkinson, who photographed and wrote about the barns for Bicentennial Barns of Ohio, a 2003 book licensed by the state's bicentennial commission.
Over time, word of the project has spread far beyond the borders of Buckeye State.
"We get people from every place," Mr. Shaw said. "Out of state? All the time."
"We have had visitors from as far away as Florida," Mr. Zuver said. "Some people have commented that they are from out of state and have learned of the barn paintings from friends or relatives, so they decided to make a trip to see as many as they can."
Ms. Wilkinson expects that trend to continue.
"It was a unique thing we did," Ms. Wilkinson said. "I think the idea will spread."
As for Mr. Hagan, he sees a bright future for barn tourism.
"It really is amazing," he said. "I'm not sure it'll ever end."
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