Barn Painting: “The Whiteleather”

There aren’t many barns with books written about them, but this one has that distinction. The Whiteleather Barn, a tiny paperback published in 2014 by the Whitley County Historical Museum, contains 38 pages of this barn’s history as recorded by Fredric and Hugo Martz who both grew up on the farm. Ron Myer, my Whitley County barn scout, loaned me this book.

I don’t know much about the early days of this farm, which traces back to the 1800s when it had a dozen buildings, proving that its owners knew how to farm profitably. Of the dozen, the barn is the lone survivor. It’s odd that all of the 19th century structures on this farm met their demise, including a timber-framed barn, a four-bedroom brick farmhouse, a large hen house, a spring house with underground water supply, and an abandoned one-room brick schoolhouse.

The “current” history begins when David Whiteleather and his wife Ketura bought the 205-acre farm for about $10,000 in 1906. David practiced law in Columbia City and wanted to raise pure bred Holstein dairy cows, a passion of his. So he built this barn and a large silo in 1914 for $25,000, a large sum of money in those days, an era which was known as the golden age of agriculture when prices for farm goods were high. He ordered bulls from Washington State for breeding, bought and sold his prize cattle, and flourished. By 1912 he had paid off the farm mortgage. He started a family and his three children grew up on the farm.

Then the Great Depression hit, costing many farmers their livelihood. Banks foreclosed. Profits were dim, if any at all. In the 1930s the Whiteleather farm ran downhill, but its owner managed to hang on, subsidizing it with his income from his law business. Enter the Martz family.

Joe Martz, a Whitley County farmer, had lost his farm to the bank in the 1930s, partly because a fire destroyed his year’s food storage. He became a tenant farmer and his wife Dora worked as a legal secretary for Mr. Whiteleather from 1929 to 1934. Times were tough. And, with his farm falling apart and his herdsman quitting, Mr. Whiteleather had to make a decision. Knowing Dora’s work ethic, he hired her husband as his herdsman. In January, 1939, not the warmest month in northern Indiana, Joe and his family began living on the farm and became partners with Whiteleather. On only a handshake. Joe had no experience in dairy farming, much less in raising prize Holsteins. It was a risky proposition for both parties.

The beginning was awful: calves died mysteriously, the silage was poor, and the conditions in the barn were unsanitary. A local veterinarian changed that. The next summer the herd became healthy and Joe began learning about his new profession. He began to turn a profit, which made Mr. Whiteleather happy, though this happiness was short-lived. He died in 1942. His widow honored the handshake-formed partnership with the Martz family and continued to enjoy profits from the farm as Joe’s expertise grew.

The years of WWII had taken all the young men, including farm hands. Joe’s sons, Fred, Hugo, and Tom were too young to do any heavy work. So Joe worked dawn to dusk, seven days a week, to keep the farm alive. Throughout the 1940s and the 1950s Joe’s reputation as a champion breeder spread and visitors from long distances came to buy his stock. Farm profits were enough to raise three sons, but all good things come to an end. In 1962, partnership between the Martz family and the Whiteleather heirs ended with the final livestock sale – 70 head of cattle in a tent ring next to the barn. Pedigrees of each animal were documented in a sales catalogue.

I don’t know much about the barn’s ownership from the 1960s, though its present owners are Dr. David Hurley, an emergency room physician, and his wife Julia.

Sadly, the barn’s days are numbered since it has outlived its usefulness. It’s hard for a small dairy farmer to compete with the mega-farms, ones that often raise hundreds or even thousands of milk cows, enjoying the economics of volume business. A hundred years ago it was built well, using the newer plank and bolt construction. Its concrete banked entry ramp to the second floor hasn’t shown a crack in the cement. Inside, its cavernous ceiling of lumber looks almost new, except for a hole in the siding, evidence of a strike to the barn from lightning hitting a nearby metal windmill in the late 1940s. Though the windmill and the original wooden silo are gone, the Whiteleather, as I call it, protected by a metal roof capped by two silver metal cupolas, still stands proudly, its paint, once yellow and later red, has faded, revealing the original skin, now weathered gray-brown wood.

It served its masters well, allowing children to play basketball inside its walls, housing prized dairy cows, and providing enough income to raise three sons who became successful, thanks to learning the value of hard labor and team work. Yes, it takes a team to run a small farm. Son Fred, a professor of agriculture at the University of Missouri, also is a farmer. Hugo, a lawyer in Valparaiso, owns the farm where father Joe grew up. Their brother, Thomas, also employed by the University of Missouri, died in 2012. Someday this barn will die, too, but for now it survives, a testament to the determination of a hard working farmer and his family.