Do I call them barnsters or barnaholics or barnphiles? Maybe just Jack, Dave and Steve will do. The Sheffield Land Trust brought them together for an SRO program at Dewey Hall last winter. Jack A. Sobon of Windsor, an architect and timber frame specialist; David Lanoue of Stockbridge, a contractor and barn restorer; and Steve Donaldson of Great Barrington, a photographer. They all love New England’s barns and talked about them and showed photos to get across the complex engineering, the true craftsmanship and the lasting esthetics of the humble buildings.
The earliest North American barns were built by the scribe rule method, Sobon explained. English barns were the most common in Berkshire County, though south Berkshire had many Dutch-style barns (and houses) that are now either gone or were incorporated into larger barns that took on the English style. So what you see along roads isn’t necessarily the whole story.
New England-style barns, so-called, came in before the Civil War and are distinguished by doors at the ends, rather than on the sides. That’s an over-simplification; read a barn book by Sobon or Donaldson to learn more.
Early English barns were three-bay. Most measured 30 by 40 feet. The main floor was the threshing floor, where the farmer flailed his harvested grain to separate seeds from stalks. The former was food, the latter was bedding. After 1805 or so, the square rule method of barn construction came into favor. For one thing, it was easier to learn.
Lanoue showed photos of barns he had restored, taken down and rebuilt or otherwise worked with. He and Sobon obviously enjoyed the thrill of puzzling out how a barn was put together. Their preference, Lanoue said, is to preserve a barn right where it is. If that won’t work, then move it.
Or take it down and put it up somewhere else. (Several barns have ended up in what he calls his "orphanage" in VanDeusenville waiting for a new home.) He marveled at a good barn’s "beautiful geometry."
Donaldson’s photographs (many from his book) show how barns shape our New England landscape -- though we lose more of the structures each year.
I had some experiences with a barn when I was growing up. Our family lived at the Helen and Arthur Budd estate in Windsor, an accumulation of several small farms. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the colonel maintained the old Hume farm as a small dairy and pig enterprise. No chickens.
Stephen and Richard Hume bought land in Windsor in 1817. Stephen (1754-1843), a private during the American Revolution, settled in town with his wife, Mary (1753-1837). Berkshire Hills magazine in its August 1904 issue mentioned the Hume and Alpheus Brown families had to travel to Stafford’s Hill in Cheshire for pork and meat and other necessities. No little general store on the hill in those days. Son Stephen Tyler Hume (1779-1862) took as his second wife Lucy Baldwin (1781-1867) and purchased acreage from her father, Samuel Baldwin, who lived less than one-half mile away. A nephew, Claudius A. Hume, ended up with the farm, as best my research could tell me.
The farmstead consisting of a saltbox-style farmhouse and a woodframe barn became part of the Budds’ Notchview Farm. Dormers had been added to the house at some point to give it three second-floor bedrooms. A milk room had been built onto a front porch. An addition as large as the barn itself had been affixed to the original barn, and part of the level below the original building dug out and stonewalled for a piggery.
There were as many as 30 head of cattle kept there, eight or so milking cows, the others beef stock. The estate farmer lived in the house. (Our family lived in the Gate House and other workers lived in the West and North Cottages.)
During busy haying season, some of the estate laborers helped bring in the crop. The colonel favored International Harvester equipment, so by the time I got around as a teenager to working in the hayfields, there were Farmall Models H (tricycle) and 606 (wide front wheels) in the fleet and a huge International Harvester hay bailer. We loaded the hay bales onto the back of one of two stake-body IH trucks and drove the trucks onto the barn floor, hefted the bales over and up into the hay mow. On a hot day, it was dusty and uncomfortable work.
The barn fit Jack Sobon’s description of an English barn. Today I would know from Lanoue to look at the main beams for numbers for assembly. Entry was through a large door on the side. The barn was asymmetrical. It was wider on the west than the east. The milkers were Guernseys. The steers were often Herefords.
After the Budds died and the property came to The Trustees of Reservations, Dad set up a planing machine in the barn and we planed rough hardwood planks harvested from the property for use on Notchview, Bryant Homestead and elsewhere. I don’t miss the flying wood chips from the pre-OSHA planer.
But sometimes I do miss the old barn.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.