Seven years had passed since the close of the bloody Civil War. In the rich rolling hills of south-central Pennsylvania, the Star Barn was raised. Built by John Motter near Middletown, the gentleman farmer and banker had gained prominence by furnishing the United States Army with thousands of high quality horses and mules.
The majestic three-level Gothic Revival style structure is celebrated for the four giant stars carved into its facades. And, they are more than a decoration. Constructed of wood louvers, the cut-outs provided additional light and important air circulation for the drying of hay and other grains.
In the 1870s landowners dreamed of a bright future for agriculture. It was the beginning of a great era of restoration throughout the country, and the stars stood for hope and good fortune for the farm and the land. It truly was a new beginning.
However, over the last 25 years, much of the regal barn’s luster had faded, natural elements and neglect taking their toll.
Enter Robert S. Barr. A local business entrepreneur, educator and president of the non-profit Agrarian Country, Barr purchased the Star Barn and its complex in 2007. It is one of the most artistically photographed, painted, and replicated buildings in the U. S. Barr’s mission is to dismantle the barn and rebuild it as a centerpiece at Agrarian Country’s Agricultural Education and Exhibition Center.
“As you get older, you’re always thinking about what else you can do,” Barr related. “Retirement, to me, doesn’t mean playing golf somewhere. It means what I will do with the last part of my life. So I’ve gone back to my roots.”
Eventually, the Star Barn complex will focus on fully functioning agricultural enterprises, educational programs, and destination sites for agricultural tourism. A restaurant and dinner theater also are planned. Its goal: preserving the heritage and history of Pennsylvania agriculture. Barr plans to move the famous 19th-century Star Barn, now situated off Route 283 outside Middletown, and its ancillary buildings to a 300-acre tract of land northeast of Exit 80 off I-81.
Star Barn Thoroughbreds is another piece of the project. A couple of miles from Penn National Race Course, Agrarian Country purchased the former historic Regal Heir Farm in Grantville, Pa. last fall. Star Barn Thoroughbreds consists of 80 acres of paddocks, multiple barns and outbuildings as the property continues as a full-service breeding operation.
Regal Heir Farm started in 1969, beginning as a small show horse facility. Over time, founding owners Tom and Ann Reigle developed Regal Heir into one of the Keystone State’s largest and most successful thoroughbred operations, before selling the property in 2005 to fellow Pennsylvanians Dennis and Michele Madonna and Bradley and Sue Jones. As a premier stallion station, Regal Heir had been home to leading Pennsylvania sires Roanoke, Judge T. C., Patton and Real Quiet, winner of the 1998 Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
The new owners were in the process of expanding and improving Regal Heir when Dennis Madonna and Bradley Jones died in a tragic 2006 helicopter crash near the farm while taking aerial photos of the property. The families soldiered on, adding an additional 150 acres and bringing the farm’s total to 232 on three separate parcels. Then last November Barr negotiated a lease/purchase deal to take over the thoroughbred operation.
Today, Star Barn Thoroughbreds encompasses a training barn, stallion barn and broodmare barn, an 8/10 of a mile turf track, and an indoor arena utilized by the foals and weanlings. They’ve gone from 17 horses to 120 in the last six months, including 70 broodmares, 20 foals and five stallions.
Star Barn’s stallions include Senior Swinger, a horse that has won nearly $1 million at the track. He is a son of El Prado, the 1991 Irish champion 2-year-old stallion who was also the grandsire of the 2009 Horse of the Year filly Rachel Alexandra. Ecclesiastic, a multiple stakes winner of five races, was the most bred-to freshman sire in Pennsylvania in 2008. A son of Classic winner Tabasco Cat, he was a Grade I stakes winner of 10 races and racked up $711,989 in career earnings. Two new stallions have been recently added, Jockey’s Dream and Its so Simple.
Dr. Paul Truitt, a veterinarian who retired from 20 years of practice in Tennessee, is the general manager. He did an internship in veterinary medicine at the legendary Claiborne Farm in Lexington, Ky. Star Barn Thoroughbreds offers broodmare and foal care along with stallion service and a lay-up spot for racehorses.
“I was retiring from my practice and sent out some resumes to get back into the thoroughbred business,” related Truitt, a graduate of Auburn University. “The former owners of Regal Heir passed it along to Dr. Barr and I came on board earlier in the year. Our goal is to be highly competitive in the racing and breeding industries. We will be leasing an additional 70 acres nearby to help us with our expansion.”
The Star Barn is a large frame bank barn constructed on a limestone foundation. This three-story structure is approximately 67 feet wide by 105 feet long and 65 feet in height to the cupola. Except for the milk house and silo, the exterior of the buildings consists of beveled clapboard painted siding. The roofs still have wooden shingles, but have been covered by sheet metal roofing.
The ground floor interior was altered in the early twentieth century to accommodate dairy cattle and contains several concrete troughs running almost the entire width of the barn. There is also a vaulted stone cellar to the north over which the earth bank leading to the threshing floor was constructed.
The Star Barn and its outbuildings have been owned since 2ooo by Preservation Pennsylvania. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is the last of 15 Gothic Revival barns built in the Harrisburg area. After the buildings are dismantled each component will be marked and logged and then moved and reassembled, using historically accurate methods and tools, with the help of a few oxen.
As for Barr’s plan of moving the barn, it was very much a concern for Preservation Pennsylvania. Still, the Star Barn’s original location just off I-83 was difficult to access and the land surrounding it was being developed.
The statewide preservation organization fielded scores of calls concerning the future of the Star Barn since they put the property on the market in 2003. Their bottom line was that the property had to be utilized for an agricultural use.
“People called all the time with crazy ideas of what do with it,” said Mindy Higgins Crawford, executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania, which bought the property for $140,000.
When Barr first contacted Crawford about the buildings, she thought “here we go again.”
“I thought he was just one more guy calling about the Star Barn, but I could hear the passion in his voice and I really started to listen,” said Crawford. “In a meeting we set up he really sold us. I felt like we were holding it for him. He drew us into his dream.”
Across I-81 from the thoroughbred operation, Barr’s Agrarian Country plans on launching a pair of educational facilities within the next year. One will be the Star Barn Equine Academy.
“It will be a two-year program where students can learn to be farm managers, trainers, bloodstock agents and other aspects of the thoroughbred industry,” Truitt explained.
In the future, the Star Barn complex will spotlight working farms and teach visitors about Pennsylvania agriculture. It also is planning on establishing a equine rehabilitation and veterinary clinic as part of the main campus of Agrarian Country.
“It will be used for teaching and research and there will be a national museum,” Truitt said. “It will be sort of a walk through in time of veterinary medicine.”
It’s all part of Agrarian Country’s mission to link farming with education and tourism.
“We in agriculture have the most intriguing history,” Barr noted. “It’s the best story of anybody.”
To contact Terry Conway, PA Equestrian racing writer, email email@example.com