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Chris Rosenblum | Retired Penn State professor puts art and soul into barn stories, photos for book

R. Thomas Berner’s new book is “Pennsylvania Barn Stories.
R. Thomas Berner’s new book is “Pennsylvania Barn Stories. CDT photo

Tom Berner just had to turn around.

Rolling down U.S. Route 322 in Lancaster County, he thought otherwise at first.

There was a barn ahead that he wanted to photograph again for his book. The barn that caught his eye from the road, the one with the striking Mail Pouch tobacco advertisement painted on its red side? He’d catch it on the way back.

That plan lasted all of 500 feet.

“I said, ‘No, go back now,’ ” Berner said.

He found the owner working in his tool shed — and, befitting a former newspaperman, got the story.

Berner’s encounter that day led to the cover photo for his new book, “Pennsylvania Barn Stories,” a 128-page coffee-table compilation of photos and tales of 36 barns in 23 counties.

A Bellefonte resident and the author of several self-published books, he brought to his latest work a Pennsylvania lineage and a passion for research. He’s a ninth-generation Pennsylvanian, descended from Swiss-German settlers who arrived in Philadelphia in 1733, and a Penn State professor emeritus of journalism and American studies.

He also is a skilled photographer who knows his limitations.

And that’s how the story of his book began.

While driving with his wife, Paulette, on interstates, Berner kept admiring beautiful barns in the distance. Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the Keystone State, no matter where, they struck him the same way: What a great photography project they would make.

“But I figured there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of photo books about barns out there,” he said. “I’m an OK photographer, but I don’t think I can compete with some of those books.”

He needed an angle — and found one, a classic.

“They had to have stories behind them,” he said.

Three years ago, his search began.

Leads came from various sources. He joined the Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of Pennsylvania, going on barn tours. He sent letters to the editor to newspapers statewide and posted calls for help on Facebook.

A Williamsport woman sent him tips from her travels across the state for her work. Jerry Westbrook, a writer for Inside Pennsylvania magazine, mailed all his contact information from a newspaper barn series he had written.

One day, listening to WPSU during Ag Progress Days in August, Berner heard a woman being interviewed. Her grandfather bicycled from his farm in Carbon County to Penn State, 140 miles away, to take agricultural courses.

Berner was intrigued. He asked the station for the story, called the woman and added to his collection.

Of course, he hunted on his own.

Once, near Warriors Mark, he stopped at one farm, intrigued by a barn painted with a Red Man tobacco company advertisement.

Nobody was around so Berner left his calling card. Three months later, the farmer called out of the blue.

Some promising leads didn’t pan out, not as enthralling as advertised. If all a barn had going for it was one family’s ownership for two centuries, it didn’t make the cut.

“What makes a good story?” Berner said. “That’s something inherent in our genes. We know what a great story is.”

Barn by barn, he gathered material. Many had been converted into other uses: a music store, restaurants, several homes. Berner winnowed the pool, keeping just two in the end.

“I suddenly realized I was going to do a book about repurposed barns, and that was not the project,” he said. “It wasn’t what I originally had in mind.”

Though he set out to avoid local barns, not wanting to be Centre County-centric, he chose two for his final draft of photographs and narratives.

One barn houses the Happy Valley Brewing Co. brew pub in College Township. Once part of the Klinger Farm before highway construction and other development whittled away the farmland, it told a tale of urbanization to Berner.

The other belongs to Lou and Jane Moore, who bought a local log barn, took it apart and re-assembled it in Harris Township for their home.

Both joined an anthology of short stories with such titles as “Eldest Statesman,” “The Big Runaway,” “Birth of the Church,” “The Donkey Barn” and “Pigeon Feathers.” The last is about the childhood barn of John Updike in Berks County.

“Mail Pouch Restored” recalls Larry Hess’ dilemma.

Hess was the man working in the tool shed. Berner, in his excitement, left his tape recorder in the car but remembered enough to arrange a second interview later.

Here’s what he learned.

One day years ago, the barn was looking shabby, and Hess decided to repaint it. He began scraping away the white flakes, revealing the Mail Pouch advertisement painted like thousands of others in 22 states over the past century for the West Virginia chewing tobacco company

Then a car pulled up.

Out stepped a man who asked what Hess was doing. He wasn’t just curious.

Identifying himself as a U.S. Department of the Interior employee on his way back to Philadelphia from a Harrisburg conference, he told Hess to cease and desist.

He couldn’t paint over the Mail Pouch ad, no way, no how. It was protected by the federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965.

So Hess, being a lawful citizen, dutifully informed local officials about his new barn appearance. They told him it had to go — too close to the highway, in violation of the township sign ordinance.

Exasperated, Hess turned to his congressman, who stepped in and straightened out the barn brouhaha. A York County painter and his son then were hired to restore the ad to its original glory.

Berner probably won’t get rich from his book. Because grants weren’t forthcoming and he chose to publish at his own expense — to retain artistic control — copies are selling for about $140 plus shipping through www.blurb.com.

He didn’t do it for the money, anyway. It was a labor of love. Barns interested him before; they captivate him now.

In Ireland for the Penn State football opener this year, he shot plenty of pictures of Celtic versions.

He has no plans to change.

“I think I will be photographing barns until I die,” he said. “I think that’s a given.”

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