Driving down the road one day on an anniversary trip, Robert Kroeger passed an old, gray barn that called to him. Since that time less than four years ago the retired dentist has painted dozens of barns across Ohio, and Highland County 4-H will soon benefit from his efforts.
Eleven of Kroeger’s paintings are of Highland County barns, and when the Highland County Extension Support Committee holds its annual dinner fundraiser on April 2, five of them will be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to the committee.
Kroeger was born and raised in the suburbs of Youngstown and until last year had little knowledge of 4-H or what goes on at a county fair. But after starting his Ohio Barn Project last year he met with Hillsboro area residents Tim and Sandy Shoemaker over the summer and they invited him to come back for the fair. He was watching a goat show when he suddenly knew what to do with his paintings.
“The kids reminded me of my youth in the 1950s. They were clean cut, respectful and competitive,” Kroeger said. “There was one girl I thought did a very good job and when she didn’t win, I could see the expression of disappointment on her face, and I thought to myself, ‘This is it.’”
A graduate of The Ohio State University, Kroeger spent four years in the U.S. Navy before maintaining a private dental practice in Cincinnati for 30 years. Since that time he has run marathons and lost 50 pounds, organized marathons, took up the painting skills he first picked up from his commercial artist father, has become a published author, and is a certified personal trainer who started a LifeNuts vitality program.
But it was in 2012 that his anniversary trip set him on a course to help Highland County 4-H.
“My wife and I turned down the road to our bed and breakfast [and] we passed this gentle, gray giant. Its roof sagging, its side boards warped and tilted – a few missing here and there, the barn grabbed me. Disheveled, it begged for attention. I don’t know how or why, but the idea sprang into my head that I had to find out more,” Kroeger wrote on his website.
The next day he met with the owner in a small 1830 farmhouse and learned the barn’s story. Kroeger told the man that one day he’d start his barn project, and in late 2015 he gave the man a small study painting of the barn.
When he gets to 50 paintings he said he hopes to publish a book of his barn art along with essays and photographs of each one. He also plans to funnel funds from the paintings to 4-H and FFA, “towards the young men and women who work on Ohio farms, providing food, and who will become the next generation of Ohio farmers.”
Part of the reason he likes barns is because he respects early Ohio pioneers. “Their barns are disappearing fast and I’d like to preserve some of that history for the next generation,” he said Thursday. “If it wasn’t for them 200 years ago we wouldn’t be here.”
The Highland County Extension Support Committee fundraiser begins at 6 p.m. April 2 in the Poultry and Rabbit Barn on the Highland County Fairgrounds. There will be a dinner, live and silent auctions, a deejay with karaoke, and more. Tickets are $10 for anyone 11 and older, $7 for kids ages 4-10, and $3 for kids age 3 and under. They can be purchased at the Extension Office or at the door the night of the event.
“We normally raise $3,000 to $4,500 and it’s usually a really fun event. There’s something for everybody,” said committee member Jeff Parry.
In addition to the five paintings he’s donating to the auction, Kroeger will be selling his other Highland County barn paintings. It will be the first time he’s sold any.
The paintings are framed, usually with original wood from the barn pictured, and each comes with an essay on that particular barn.
In an essay called “Hunting Mushrooms” that he wrote on Mother’s Day in early May of last year, Kroeger wrote, “I met Sandy Shoemaker through the Highland County Historical Society. Both a barn owner and former USDA employee, Sandy’s job involved issuing permits for waterway construction on farmland. So, after three decades of this, she came to know most of the farms, farmers, and barns in this rural county, about an hour east of Cincinnati. Were it not for Sandy and her husband Tim, I might not have kept going with this Ohio Barn Project.”
Kroger wrote that his wife and he “arrived early in the morning and spent most of the day touring the northern half of the county, talking with barn owners. I took photos and made sketches. Sandy gave us the history and told me she could show many more. But, after all, it was Mother’s Day and Sandy and my wife deserved some personal time.
“The first barn was a beauty, a formidable gray one, framed by huge spreading trees in front of a built-up bank leading to the entrance. Sandy and Tim co-own it with Howard Grabill, whose family name graces the road alongside it. Originally unnamed and called ‘West Road’ by locals, it officially became Grabill Road in the 1970s when the state introduced 911 and mandated names for all public roads.”
Kroeger wrote that as they sat on the porch of the 1912 farmhouse, “Sandy told me that Howard Grabill was born here. Sort of. In 1945, when Howard’s mom felt strong labor pains, Howard’s dad was nowhere to be found: he was hunting mushrooms deep in the woods. For you Millennials, in those days there were no cell phones. So grandpa took Howard’s mom in his truck and sped to the hospital. But they never made it. Howard was born in the truck. In farm life everyone pitches in.
“The farm is named ‘Millstone Creek Farm,’ in reference to the many mills that lined the nearby Clear Creek. Several large millstones greet visitors on the driveway as does a big brass bell that Howard got from a West Virginia steam engine. If you ring it, Howard, a railroad aficionado, will answer with a toot-toot-toot from his horn.”
Kroeger wrote that he and Howard “both served in the Vietnam era, he in an Army re-con unit in Vietnam and me in the Navy. In those days our military personnel weren’t on pedestals, as Howard and I can attest. But times have changed, fortunately.
“A farmer built the barn in the 1880s, a time when Ohio pioneers still knew the properties of wood and how to make a barn last – as this one has. In those days, Ohio was primarily a farming state. But, further west, Indians still roamed the plains. And one of the Grabill family was there to document those days. John C.H. Grabill was a photographer of the Great Plains and, in 1886, he opened a studio in Sturgis, Dakota Territory. He took photos of the Wild West: mining, stagecoaches, the Devil’s Tower (now a national monument), and cowboys including the famous Buffalo Bill. But his most memorable work, now in the Library of Congress, showed the aftermath of the massacre at Wounded Knee in January of 1891, a tragedy that happened in the unforgiving Dakota winter. All this while his Ohio relatives were building barns and farming. John was an adventurer.”
Kroeger wrote that Howard’s grandfather, the one who provided his truck for Howard’s delivery, “had farmed for decades in Highland county before he purchased this farm in 1944. Much earlier, when Howard’s grandmother was a child, an old freed slave named Manny took care of her. They called her husband, also a freed slave, ‘Uncle’ Oliver. In return, the Grabills took care of them when they grew old. Highland County was one of numerous Ohio counties that helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad.
“In 1960, a tractor loaded with hay fell through the floor, but the barn survived. It was repaired. A few years later, Howard explained, his parents spent $5,000, a considerable sum then, to level the barn with railroad ties and steel beams since it was 17 inches “out of plumb,” as Howard put it. He said that’s why many barns fail: lack of support.”
During his later years, wrote Kroeger, “Howard’s grandpa still owned the farm, but allowed Howard’s family to live upstairs in the farmhouse. That changed when Howard began making too much noise. So grandpa, tired of Howard’s bouncing on the ceiling, moved upstairs. He died in 1953.
“And, the other owners of this wonderful barn, Sandy and Tim, grew up on Highland county farms as well. Sandy’s parents raised dairy cows; so Sandy spent a lot of time milking. ‘We had 100 cows and I had to milk them. But my dad sold them the year I left for college. He could have done that a lot sooner,’ Sandy told me. Tim also grew up on a farm, one in the southern part of the county where his parents and grandparents had been farmers. But Tim decided to spend his career working in a hospital – until 10 years ago when they bought into this farm. Even though retired from their jobs, they work the farm, raising cattle and crops.”
Kroeger concluded, “Who knows what the future holds for this Highland county barn? Maybe another father will be out hunting mushrooms at delivery time. Maybe.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.