May – Listen To The Barn

by, Tony Shepley

We have a responsibility to history. Besides ignoring it and reflexively refusing to obey it, we too often miss the opportunity to learn from it. How perfectly human that we don’t give history its due or heed its lessons better.

I am looking out the window at an 1826 Maine barn, of post and beam construction, sitting perched on the building mover’s neat stacks of timber cribbing, levitated 6’ in the air, 50’ from her original foundation. Just like a ship, I have decided, she is a she, yes… definitely a she. She is missing her original deck, many times worn and replaced over the past 190 years. The building mover just lifted her free of it after cutting back the lower section of sheathing. Her 20 main posts, each mortised and tenoned into the original deck pulled free, just as he knew they would. No dowels or pins held those tenons in their mortice pockets, just gravity.  The tenon on the bottom of each post look as good as they did when they were milled during the presidency of John Quincy Adams. Structural engineers were few and far between in 1826, but mechanical and structural common sense abounded in small rural towns across the United States. Although only 50 years had passed since the Declaration of Independence, the Industrial Revolution was underway, fueled by just the type of American ingenuity that built our barn and thousands like her to last hundreds of years.

We had more than a few dinner table conversations about the wisdom of rehabilitating an old barn versus simply  knocking her down and rebuilding from scratch. I was committed to saving her although the old stack stone foundation and first floor deck were beyond fixing. She’ll get a poured concrete foundation, a real basement, and a deck ready for the next two hundred years. Joe, the building mover, is exactly the type of ingenious Mainer who built this barn in the first place. He knows how things were done and how to coax the bones back into place. As he jacked the barn, his careful measurements and calculations led to the structure being lifted back into an incredible plumb level and square state. She looked 100 years younger already! To move the barn sideways 50 feet to allow the excavator easy access to the foundation, Joe set up two big lateral rails of I-beam on 6’x 6” cribbing stacks and pulled the 40 ton barn (36’W x 50’L x 36’H) with a John Deere log skidder equipped with a winch. Used fryolator oil literally greased the skids and the old girl made her trip across the rails with ease. Joe is possessed with Maine practicality that intersects nicely with his Maine sense of humor! She is resting comfortably on the perch Joe built for her and in a few weeks, when the foundation is done and the deck is on, she will make the return 50 foot trip back home, Joe will lower her in exact place, the tenons will slide into new mortice pockets and gravity will take over once again to anchor her, as always.

The old girl will have frost walls, perimeter drainage, pressure treated sills and modernized electrical and water. She’ll get new roofing, trim, siding, and doors and windows. We will do our best to be faithful to her character. We’ll refrain from over insulating her, so she can breathe. We’ll preserve every bit of her wonderful beams and exposed sheathing that we can. We’ll veneer the exposed parts of her new concrete foundation with stone that comes from her original foundation. We will also respect her colors, smells, sounds, and spirit. If we do our job right, she will long outlast us and someday our successors will be scratching their heads at the work we put into this dignified old Maine grand dame of a barn.

“Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.” -Soren Kierkegaarde

“The past beats inside me like a second heart.” – John Banville

“Study the past, if you would define the future.” – Confucius 

Here’s to the next 200 years and all that we can learn from the past 200!

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