Gann Valley Barn

The historical Gann Valley barn. 

Family farms are worth preserving, and there’s a sense of pride when the next generation takes up the reins of a family business started a century ago or more. 

Along with maintaining an active ranch, one central South Dakota farmer/rancher is making it his mission to preserve his family’s farm buildings as well.

On the rolling hills of Buffalo County, north from the country’s smallest county seat of Gann Valley – population 12 – stands a big red barn. At 100-by-45-feet, the one-and-a-half-story gambrel roof barn was once the largest barn in Buffalo County. This barn most likely still holds this title due to these structures disappearing from the American landscape. It has stood through wind storms and tornados to serve more than 100 years’ worth of hay harvests and calving seasons. 

This spring’s harsh blizzards made the barn a busy place at calving time, sheltering more than 100 cows and more than 50 calves. It’s a working barn, but one with a whole family’s story wrapped up in it. That, to fifth generation rancher Lee Sinkie, is worth saving. He’s taking a more active role in the farm now that his dad is retired, and his kids and nephew are showing promise for the future of the operation. Lee is determined to keep the big barn at the center of it all. 

“Our aspirations are to preserve the history,” Lee said.

He and his brother, Brett, live 75 miles away in Mitchell, but both help on the farm. Lee works there most days, and their dad and stepmom, Richard and Karen Sinkie, live on site. 

Gann Valley Barn Family

Lee Sinkie stands with his stepmom Karen and dad Richard at their Gan Valley Farm. Lee and his brother Brett are active on the farm as their dad retires from a career of farming and managing livestock sales.

Richard’s great-grandparents Henry Joseph and Bertha Sinkie homesteaded across the road in 1883, the year their son Ernie was born. H.J. Sinkie came from Wisconsin and almost turned back. An April blizzard greeted his arrival at the train station in Mitchell, and the hotel was full with travelers, as Richard tells it. A local talked H.J. Sinkie into sticking it out.

“We almost didn’t live here,” said Richard.

Richard, 81, lived his entire life on the farm aside from two years when his time in the Army brought him to Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Korea in the 1950s. He spent much of his life managing livestock sales. Richard traveled eight states and Canada, running as many as 30 sales a year until he retired in 2007. His wife, Karen, worked as an electrician and now manages a hunting lodge in the area.

The current farm site is on land that H.J. Sinkie purchased in 1902. Ernie took over in 1910, built the barn in 1917 and added many of the other buildings that survive today. The farm was passed to his son, Arno in 1948 and to Richard in 1969.

The place is most commonly known as the Flying R Ranch, the brand the Sinkies use for their Angus and Hereford cattle. However, it was also at one time known as Long View Stock Farm, the name Ernie painted on the side of the barn. The family isn’t sure where this name came from, but guesses it had something to do with the size of the barn.

The barn has held an array of livestock over the years. The diversity speaks to the way most farms operated in the early 20th century. The building housed pigs, sheep, horses, dairy cattle and stock cows.

The loft has reminders from days when the barn was home to two teams of large draft horses. Piles of hay sit between the chutes where it could be thrown down to the horse stalls. Dusty tack hangs from the walls.

“The history is still here,” Lee said.

The barn looks different from when Ernie first built it. In 1924 a straight-line wind came from the west and blew the top off from the loft, up. Ernie re-built the loft with a shorter wall. It was at this time, he painted “Longview Stock Farm – 1917” in large letters on the side. He used scraps from the damaged barn to build two large chicken coops and a garage, which are still in use today.

It’s going to take some work to see the barn and its outbuildings into its second century. When hogs were housed in the barn’s southeast quarter, they rooted into the ground and weakened the foundation. The wooden structure needs straightening, and it will be re-roofed after that.

Repairing the 102-year-old structure will be a major task, but Lee is determined.

“It will be my last breath before I give up,” he said.

Lee wrote a preservation plan and will apply for funding through historic preservation programs such as the Deadwood Grant. His goal is not only for upkeep, but to make sure the barn is still functional.

“We wanted to make sure we could still use it,” he said.

The barn was listed last fall on the National Register of Historic Places as an architectural example of an early 20th century stock farm. Also listed on the registry was the house where Richard grew up, the outhouse, the storm cellar where the family once took shelter from a tornado, as well as the garage and chicken coops.

Those buildings have seen lifetimes worth of memories.

Growing up, it was Richard’s job to ride out on horseback and bring the cows in for milking. They kept fewer than 10 milk cows, and he milked the “easy” one, he said.

Richard was proud when he was asked to take the task of driving the team of horses to seed the oat field. He thought he was doing great work, he said, but actually the team could drive itself by following the corn rows.

Richard remembers a horse that got him in trouble when he was about 10. His parents told him not to ride the young horse, but he couldn’t resist. It turned into trouble when the horse sprinted toward the open barn door. The horse stopped just short of the door, and Richard flew over his head. The fall knocked him out, and he woke up to his mom and grandma standing over him.

“I was all grown up before I rode that horse again,” he said.

Horses have played a big role on the Sinkie farm for well over 100 years. Richard and Karen raised quarter horses and published a monthly magazine, Quarter Horse Digest, for 20 years. The family hosted horse-drawn hay rides for the kids’ 4-H club. Richard’s daughter, Melanie McCavish, rode barrels, and Brett rode bulls for several years.

Melanie competed two years at the World Wide Paint Horse Congress in Wichita, Kansas, and won her event the second year. Her dad was hoping she’d take on a career training horses.

“She had a way with them,” Richard said.

Lee and Brett, have always been closely involved with the farm. They loved the work even as a kids.

“I couldn’t wait to get off the bus,” Lee said.

He’d hear the John Deere running and knew he’d get to help plow the fields, he said.

It wasn’t all work that went on in the barn. In the 1940s, the Sinkies hosted barn dances for all the neighbors, including kids. Relatives played in a band, and Richard’s dad played fiddle. He recalls attending dancing as a kid.

“That was old time entertainment back in those days,” he said.

The barn was the center of activity into Lee’s day as a kid, too.

The loft served as a basketball court and a swing set. Lee and his friends liked to launch themselves from the trolley into piles of hay.

“A lot of time was spent in that barn, and that’s how we made our living,” he said.

Today, Lee and Brett’s kids are making memories at the farm. Brett’s son Wyatt, 14, and Lee’s kids Nathan, 18, and Jessica, 15, help out when they can. Lee has fond memories of fixing fence with the kids and taking a break together on the hilltop.

“You can see for miles,” he said.

Richard is proud to see his sons running the farm and his grandkids showing an interest as well.

“That’s what I looked forward to all my life,” he said.

Reach Tri-State Neighbor Editor Janelle Atyeo at 800-888-1380, email jatyeo@tristateneighbor.com or follow on Twitter @JLNeighbor.

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Janelle is editor of the Tri-State Neighbor, covering South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska. Reach her at jatyeo@tristateneighbor.com or follow on Twitter @JLNeighbor