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Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Old Barn

MARTIN FARM--This barn is an example of a Vermont barn still serving its purpose.

Located on the farm of Larry and Sue Martin's dairy farm in Fairlee, it plays a major role in the childhood memories of my wife, Carolyn and her siblings, Charlotte, Larry. Gene and Cathy.

Yankee Barn--This early barn is owned by Trudy and Stanton Fadden and is located on Rogers Hill Road in Bradford. At some time in the past, it was moved to this site onto an existing stone foundation. It represents as style of barn architecture that became popular in the 1820's.

Bradford Historical Society)

Houghton's Folly--byuilt in 1878 in lower Orford, this elaborate barn was the centerpiece of the Pavilion Stock Farm. Said to have been the size of 18 good-sized barns, it was built for Boston merchant S. S. Houghton. First used for housing harness race horses, it was destroyed by fire in 1930. (Orford Historical Society)

IN THE ROUND--Located south of Wells River, this round barn was built in 1903 by Hammon Baldwin. The style featured a central silo and a covered high drive ramp and was designed to save labor. The barn is currently part of the Knox farms. (Michelle Sherburne)

GRAY OLD LADY--Moving toward its tipping point, this barn is located on Route 5 south of the Bradford-Fairlee line. While once a centerpiece of the Gray family farm, it now sits idle with nature taking its toll. In 2014 this barn was torn down. (Larry Coffin)


As published in the Journal-Opinion, June 22, 2011

“The barn is vernacular architecture. It is a reflection of the people and history of the region. Few of us can determine the age of a barn or its specific purpose at a glance, but we admire the classical proportions, the harvest design and sturdy construction, and the use of native materials. We can imagine how the building represented the aspirations and success of its first owner.”

This quote from Charles Leik’s Barns was sent to me by Jeannette Nordham of Bradford. Jeannette spearheaded a Bradford barn census a year ago for the Bradford Historical Society. She and her team documented the history of 50 barns that had been used for agriculture and built before 1958. Tony Brainerd photographed each of the structures. This census was conducted in connection with a state-wide program of the Vermont Department of Historic Preservation.

Last October, Nancy Boone of the DHP presented the history of Vermont barns to a large local audience. She had high praise for the work accomplished by the Bradford team. She included a few of Brainerd’s photographs in her standard presentation. On Wednesday, August 17, the Society will present a program on Bradford barns using the photographs and information collected for the census. This program will be held in the Bradford Academy auditorium and will be open to the general public.

This column deals with the development of area barns, tangible evidence of the evolution of agriculture in the area. It uses information from local histories, Field Guide to New England Barns and Farm Buildings by Thomas Visser and Boone’s presentation.

If the first structures built by settlers were houses, they were soon followed by barns. As in the European countries from which they came, barns were essential to subsistence farmers. They provided space for animals and equipment and for the processing and storage of crops. As with the first log cabins, log barns were rude structures. As quickly as framed homes were built, barns were framed as well.

Using local timber, many early barn builders used traditional English designs adapted to the harsher climate of northern New England. The so-called English barn, commonly 30’ x 40’, had a large door on the eaves side. The central area was a threshing floor with bays on either side.

Framing timbers were hewn from tree trunks with broad axes, sometimes smoothed with an adze and fastened in place with wooden pegs. For roofing, wooden shingles were used instead of thatch. Green framing sheathing was applied loosely, using hand-wrought nails. As the boards dried, cracks developed between them admitting light and ventilation. One 1855 observer wrote that barns often had, “cracks wide and numerous enough to thoroughly ventilate the barn, and keep it cool, especially in the winter.”

The following story about Aaron Mann’s barn building experience appears in Joel Mann’s 1865 “Centennial Celebration of Orford” speech. “Having occasion to board a new barn, and the boards being rather green, he tacked them on, as was customary, for shrinking before the final fastening, and retired to his bed, always sweet to the laboring man. During the night there arose, or rather descended one of those [Orford] mountain winds, and on viewing his barn in the morning, he found all the nails were driven ‘spang in to the head.’ ”

By the 1820’s, modifications in this traditional style appeared. Known as the Yankee barn, it had a similar internal design to earlier barns, but with the main door moved to the shorter gable end, allowing additional bays to be added as needed. Machine-made nails and timber sawed on circular saws replaced earlier materials allowing for tighter construction. Some windows, including small glass panes known as transom “lights” over the door, became common.

Farmers’ publications of the 1850’s advised against building too large or fancy a barn, noting that, “Few farmers can afford to erect a building equal to the one they can plan.” Encouraging farmers to retain the “common-place and meager” styles, J. H. Hammond warned in 1858: “Farmers should be put on their guard against laying out extravagant sums for the sake of making their barns ‘artistic’ and elegant structures….we have contended that decorations are useless on a dwelling-house: they are utterly senseless on a barn.”

These publications also included the debates over the wisdom of constructing a cellar. In 1857, a contributor to The New England Farmer wrote that: “A good cellar is as indispensable to a barn as to a house.” The cellar was used as extra space for the storage of crops, housing for animals and for the storage of manure, the benefits of which as fertilizer was being encouraged.

Barn size and architecture evolved with changes in agriculture in the two-state area. The introduction of sheep after 1810 resulted in barns with wide south-facing open shelters and a wool room. The decline of wheat as a major crop reduced the need for a threshing floor. The rise of the dairy industry required larger barns with stanchions. Raising horses required barns that could accommodate stalls. Farmers sometimes built hay barns in the outer pastures to store hay until it was needed. Many village homes also had barns to house carriages and horses and perhaps chickens and a family milk (milch) cow.

As barns were often the largest buildings around, they were sometimes pressed into other uses. In Bradford, one of the earliest schools was in a barn. In Thetford and Haverhill, newly formed congregations began by holding services in barns. In 1832, 500 mourners attended a funeral for three sisters in a large Piermont barn. Musters, town meetings, weddings, work bees and dances were held in barns. Later, the large exterior walls became billboards for products and events. Even later, barns became artist studios, theatres and apartment or business locations.

The hilly terrain of the area led to the building of bank barns. Similar in appearance to earlier barns, these structures were built in to the side of a hill to create a cellar. This style of barn often featured ventilators and cupolas, sometimes topped by weathervanes. Tighter building construction created the need to vent moisture from cattle and manure.

In some cases, a high drive ramp was built from the hillside to the upper floor, allowing hay to be easily transported for storage. Farmers used gravity for pitching hay from the loft and for shoveling manure through a hatch to the cellar below. This was especially important when there was a shortage of labor caused by the exodus of young men.

Just as new styles of construction were used, new labor-saving machines were constantly being introduced. Horse-powered fork lift raised hay to the lofts, later replaced by engine-powers methods. As the 19th century drew to a close, concrete began to replace fieldstone and planks for foundations and flooring. New building materials and techniques improved barn construction. Silos created feeding alternatives to hay and oats. Gable-front barns and ground level stable barns were built to accommodate larger herds. Milk houses were added to conform to changing health regulations.

Many barns in the styles mentioned above can still be seen around the area. There were also several built in dramatically different styles. The round or polygonal barn was not common although there were a few built in the area. Barns of this type were often up to four stories tall and were designed for maximum labor efficiency. Often a covered ramp led to the hayloft and cattle were stabled facing inward to a central silo. Two that survive include the one on the Knox farm south of Wells River and a 16-sided barn on the Schmidt farm on Route 10 in Piermont.

The most elaborate barn in the area was the centerpiece of the Pavilion Stock Farm, south of Orford village. A prime example of the more ornate structures, it was built in 1878 by S. S. Houghton of Boston. Built at a cost of $40,000, it was 240’ by 200’ with four floors topped by a clock tower, 150’ high. It had the capacity of 18 good-sized barns and could accommodate 200 horses. The building was destroyed by fire on July 26, 1930.

Of course, barns were the centerpiece of a myriad of smaller support buildings. This included a silo, corn crib, granary, smokehouse, root cellar, woodshed, spring house, privy, piggery and a sugar house. One unique feature that developed in our two-state area was the connected barn. This style of continuous architecture connected the barn to the main house with a series of support buildings. This offered a sheltered corridor when the dooryard was plagued with deep snow and sub-zero temperatures. The danger of fire spreading to engulf the connected structures has led to alterations disconnecting the house and barn.

Fire has always been a constant threat to barns. Spontaneous combustion caused by improperly cured hay or dust has destroyed many of them. In the 19th century, several area towns went through an outbreak of intentional barn burnings. Having one’s barn burn and crops and livestock destroyed strikes most heavily at a farmer’s spirit and well-being. If initial barn-raisings promotes neighborliness, so does the response to the loss of a barn by fire.

Fire is not the only danger to barns. The decline of farming has made many barns a liability. With the increasing cost of maintaining barns, they fall into disrepair to the point of collapse. Several of the oldest barns in Bradford have been removed, their boards and beams becoming building material for new buildings elsewhere.

Pauline Whittemore of Lyme is quoted in that town’s Patterns and Pieces about a barn that had reached a tipping point: “The barn was beginning to return to nature. A beam had parted in the corner and poles had been put up to hold it for just a little longer…an empty barn that is not in use loses a shingle here and there. With each fall of snow and with the freezing and thawing and the rushing waters of spring clawing at the foundation, the walls will settle and stress begin. The winter winds and summer storms rack and push an empty barn. With the help of time, they have their way and gradually take it back from whence it came many years ago.”

Jeannette Nordham and her husband Bob are owners of an 1840 English-style barn in Bradford. When asked about her interest in old barns, she said that it stems from childhood visits to her grandfather’s farm in Iowa. Together they provided me with the following: “Those barn owners who have maintained and/or restored their barns, are glad they did. Barns can still have useful purposes. They add to the beauty of the rural landscape and are a worthwhile investment!”

In her October presentation, Nancy Boone said that at the present rate of destruction, some towns will have no barns remaining. She encouraged other towns to follow Bradford’s example by conducting a barn census. Owners of barns should also be aware of state and private grants available to preserve their structures. Although they are small and highly competitive, these grants offer some funds for repairs and maintenance. Some New Hampshire towns, including Haverhill, have taken advantage of a state law allowing property tax advantages to owners of historic barns.

This spring it was announced that the number of dairy farms in Vermont had dropped below 1000. Farm diversification takes some of the sting out of that statistic. There is no doubt that a part of the tourist attraction for our area lies in its pastoral landscape resplendent with carefully tended farms. Because of their importance to both our cultural heritage and current economy, we need to tend to our area barns. Let’s not lock the barn door after its too late.

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