If a farmer needs a barn, he will probably call a building contractor, who will bring a crew and all the materials to his site and put the barn up in short order. This was not always the case — sometimes the materials had to be produced before they could be assembled.
The Thornton adobe barn, in southeast Pratt County, is a case in point. It is located one mile east and 1.25 north of Isabel, on Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism property known as the Isabel Wetlands. It is open to the public — just latch the doors and leave it as you found it.
The barn was built in 1942 from adobe blocks, a material not in popular use since the pioneer days. But those were extraordinary times. The nation was coming out of the Great Depression and enmeshed in World War II. The War Production Board, created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, issued orders redirecting materials to the war effort and limiting farm construction to $1,000 or less.
At the same time, Kansas farmers were encouraged to consider adding or expanding dairy operations on their farms to replace stock sold off during the Depression and drought of the 1930s.
If a farmer was going to milk cows, he needed a barn, but lumber, steel and money were in short supply. Edward "Ed" Thornton found a solution in one of the oldest materials known to man.
Neighbors came in to help, but still, building a barn of mud and straw took months, according to Thornton's daughter, Della Thompson of Pratt, who was a teenager in 1942.
With the help of Bernard Rolf, a former neighbor of her parents, Thompson nominated the barn to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 and placed a bronze plaque near the door.
The barn stands as a testament to the resourcefulness of Kansas farmers.
Fred Westphal, who helped with the construction, described the process for the National Register application.
"We would go to the low part of a pasture where water would sometimes stand. (Mr. Thornton) would plow up a portion of the grass and ground...and we would incorporate a little straw into it and he would disc this together and we would haul water and put it on all this and then put it into a bunch of forms he had made."
After the bricks were cured, they were laid on a footing of concrete blocks to a height of seven feet. Windows were set into precast concrete frames. Three rows of five stanchions for cows dominate the main floor of the barn.
Thompson said as a child, she knew how to milk, but once she began taking piano lessons, she spent her time practicing, and her brother became the milker.
Page 2 of 2 - By 1999 some of the barn's protective stucco coat had fallen off, leaving the adobe brick vulnerable to the weather. A group of local citizens donated time and money to replace damaged bricks with those from another, more severely deteriorated adobe barn that had also been built by Ed Thornton. No new bricks were created for the restoration. All of the barn's original masonry covering was removed and replaced and the windows were also replaced.
Between the walk-in doorway and a window, a section of the adobe was left uncoated and is protected by glass. Displays of photographs and newspaper articles detailing the restoration process and the barn's history are found inside the barn.
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