What child – or adult(?) – doesn’t crane his or her neck to get a look at a barn and perhaps glimpse a horse or cows, sheep, goats or llamas. Barns capture the imagination and speak of rural lifestyles and agriculture, even milk and eggs.
Barns have been a necessity since, well, who knows? The Christmas season just passed, reminding us of a barn more than 2,000 years ago. Those raised in Virginia know of historic structures since 1607 Jamestown. The world’s oldest standing pole barn is Cressing Temple in Essex, England, open to the public for tours. It boggles the mind that timber frame structures from 1220 still stand. The oldest American barns, too many in derelict condition, are hundreds of years newer.
A Natural Obsession
Mike Bowers grew up on a farm in Maryland where he and his brother were always on horses. By the age of 16, they had a horse van and were showing and training horses for others. People told them they should go west and work on a ranch, so the brothers did, living and working in Tucson, Ariz., for a while.
The multi-talented pair could shoe horses and start horses under saddle. They moved to Colorado, training and working to pay for college, ending up at a farm that offered draft horse sleigh rides, hay rides, and team driving lessons. Cue the pretty horse lover, Sharon, who came to learn team driving and left with Mike’s heart. Fast-forward a few years to 1992 when Sharon was looking for a graduate program in animal nutrition, while Mike was looking for a nice, rural place to put down roots. Blacksburg fit the bill.
When you have horses, you need barns and sheds. They bought property and enlarged the barns and built new ones. He placed one quarter-page ad in the old Roanoke Times Current section for constructing sheds and barns, and he’s still busy. “I love designing and building. Construction suits me,” he relates.
In 1966, Eric Sloan published his book An Age of Barns. An artist, he tried to research American barns for a series of paintings, but discovered little published on the topic, and the seed for his book was planted. When asked if he was familiar with the book, Mike Bowers responds: “I learned a lot from his books; for an artist, he knew a lot about construction.”
Barn Raising and Boys Work Day
In 18th- and 19th-century rural life, communities held barn raisings to construct barns, often in a day. Building large structures requires many hands, and volunteers knew their free labor would be repaid when they needed a barn. In the New River Valley, for 25 years and counting, Bowers has been one of the participants in Boys Work Day. It is a committed bunch of guys who work on each other’s places, put up fences at community gardens, build a ramp for someone and help out wherever they see a need. Anyone is welcome, and Bowers hopes some younger folks will start their own monthly group, tools in hand, lunch in a sack, camaraderie at its best.
A Class A Licensed Contractor, Mike has built barns for more than 20 years — horse barns, storage barns, barns for goats, boats and kayaks — all within an hour’s drive of Blacksburg. At 68, he has his eye on retirement, and his bowing out of the business in a year or two opens the door for another enterprising barn builder to step up.
Old Can Be New Again
Besides building new barns, Bowers Custom Barns rehabilitates old barns. When the North Fork Historic District needed barns and a 1700s blacksmith shop restored, they called Mike.
The owner of one dilapidated frame house had been advised to burn it down. Their second opinion was from Mike, who discovered and restored the late 1800s log cabin hidden beneath the siding. Inspection revealed round chestnut log floor joists with bark still clinging to the logs.
Mike confided that his favorite place to build is fenced land with a nice house because when you build a barn, then you have a farm!
He fits the barn to each customer’s desires, constructing two-story barns, warehouse-style barns, some half steel-sided and half wood-sided. All his structures have a 1.5-foot overhang all the way around and steel roofing.
When asked what he would like New River Valley Magazine readers to know, Mike Bowers gives it thoughtful consideration and responds: “I’m grateful to have had a business I love for so long with wonderful customers. The area I love had needs that fit my skill set. If you like working with your hands, go for it. Hard work does pay off. We started with absolutely nothing, and it worked for us. God Bless America!”
Text by Jo Clark
Photos courtesy of Bowers Custom Barns
Jo Clark is a life-long horse lover, though now her [globe] trotting is more likely on planes, ships and automobiles. Follow along on Instagram @JoGoesEverywhere, or Facebook, Have Glass, Will Travel.