HINTON, W.Va. -- People call her the Barn Lady and Phyllis Whitley doesn't mind at all. In fact, that's who she is.
Whitley has made it her mission to preserve the history of the farming industry, barns, the people who built them and the stories surrounding them in Summers County. In a way, she is chronicling a slice of West Virginia farm life.
When Whitley learned that her grandfather's barn was going to be torn down before it fell down, she was filled with sadness for her "failure to photograph the wonderful vernacular structure during the many years it stood at its best."
Realizing that the demolition of her grandfather's barn would get rid of the physical memories she shared of her childhood in West Virginia, she knew she had to do something to capture those last memories for herself and for everyone else who had an emotional attachment to a barn in the county.
The idea to photograph the barns in Summers County was born in fall 2008, and Whitley began venturing down the country roads the following spring with her cousin, Joyce Waltman.
Her book, "Barns of Summers County: West Virginia Heritage," will tell tales about the history of farming in the county, accompanied by numerous pictures of barns.
Whitley said on her website that it was a visit with 90-year-old Christine Lowery that made her realize she wanted this to be much more than a picture book. Lowery, who had just finished canning cherries when the Barn Lady arrived for her photo shoot, told Whitley the story of her father building the barn and then moving it, piece by piece, to the location where it now stands.
"She lamented the fact that she would love to restore the barn but just wasn't up to it right now," Whitley wrote.
That, for the Barn Lady, was the turning point. Not only are the photographs important to the history of the state, but Whitley thinks the stories wedged in between the planks and nailed into the logs of the barns need to be told.
"I'm just trying to capture the essence of the barn itself. . . . People will tell me things about the barn, what it was used for, so sometimes I look for those things that describe that in a picture," Whitley said.
Whitley, who worked for Verizon for about 30 years before retiring and who now lives in Virginia with her husband, is a photographer by hobby.
She has photographed more than 240 barns built before 1950 since she started her adventure. She set 1950 as an arbitrary pre-construction date so the project would not be too overwhelming. Not all of those photos will be used in the final publication, but Whitley is taking care to make sure as many of the barns as possible are included in the book.
Some barns that met the age cutoff had already been torn down, but about 35 people have donated photographs and stories of the structures to include in Whitley's book.
Whitley remembers one story, where a man she encountered in her travels told her how his relative had built their "dream barn" piece by piece over a period of years until it was exactly what they wanted.
"Just like how Johnny Cash built his car," she said. "Piece by piece."