Farming Magazine - May, 2010

FEATURES

Preserving the Past for the Future

Bottom lines in barn reclamation
By J.F. Pirro
George Yonnone Restorations, a 40-year structural restoration specialist in Stockbridge, Mass., restored the 19th century Pennsylvania bank barn at Thornbrook in Thurmont, Md., used by Linda Franklin and her husband to store lumber and antique farm machinery. They’ve also had the foresight to restore its provisions for future livestock.Photos courtesy of Linda Franklin.

When Barron “Boots” Hetherington was chairman of the USDA Farm Service Agency for Pennsylvania during the Bush administration, he’d visit farms helping farmers work out their differences with the governing body. In his travels, he saw vestiges of their barns, once agricultural mainstays, in various stages of dilapidation. Many were graying ghosts of their once glory. “Pretty soon, the only thing that will keep these barns alive is our memories,” he thought.

“Why can’t farmers have access to seed money like merchants do for storefront improvement?” he wondered. “Then, the guy next door wants to fix up his place, too. We need grant money. We need to get people involved.”

Hetherington has his own Pennsylvania family farm in Pattersonville, Pa., in the fertile Catawissa Valley within the northwest corner of Schuylkill County. Though the Hetherington children are the seventh generation to live in the same farmhouse, many of the outbuildings, including a butcher shop, a coal bin and an outhouse, perished over the years. A wagon shed became a machine shop. When he married his Penn State University sweetheart in 1982, they moved in and she immediately asked, “How about fixing up the barn?”

“Well, we had to get a better hay bailer,” Hetherington explained. By 1993, she asked again, “But we really needed a new combine,” he retorted. Finally, her persistence reached a point where “nothing else was going into the farm until the barn was fixed,” he says. “Our focus became the barn, and keeping it viable. It’s been rewarding.”

And, in the immediate and long-range plan, profitable. The Hetheringtons farm 440 acres, 15 of it in produce, mostly strawberries, cabbage, peppers, tomatoes and sweet corn. They also grow feed corn, soybeans, oats and hay. Still vital, their 32-by-64-foot, stone-foundation, 1875 Pennsylvania Dutch forebay bank barn stores 5,000 bales of hay and straw as well as heavy machinery above, and serves as a produce storage shed below, equipped with a fresh washing and grading line. With three barn sides underground and the fourth wall insulated, it’s perfect for 60-degree storage before the family ships 15,000 packages of produce a year. Most go to wholesalers, but the family also sells direct to consumers from a farm stand and offers a u-pick strawberry patch.

Other than form and function, their barn looks good, too. It won the 2008 Farm Heritage award in the national BARN AGAIN! program sponsored by Successful Farming magazine and the National Historic Trust. The program, which annually serves 700 barn owners, proves that adapting old barns for new and diverse farming uses can be more cost-effective than a tear-down, pole-barn substitution.

Organizations like the Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of Pennsylvania (HBFF of PA) and others have sprouted amid, and in response to, a trend that’s gaining ground: barn preservation for agricultural use.

“For these farmers, the barn is still the very heart of their farm, their business and their property, sheltering livestock and storing food,” says Melissa Evans of Restoration Design & Drafting in Goshen, N.Y., and HBFF of PA board member, who recently completed an elaborate Lancaster County barn restoration where Amish neighbor-farmers are housing draft horses. “Losing their barn spells economic ruin, but rebuilding a barn reinvests everyone in the success of the community.”

The value of a sustainable barn is not solely tourism and preservation. Farmers can make barn preservation part of a profitable and diversified farming business. The success of agriculture and heritage tourism are increasingly intertwined. A barn that’s no longer standing or functioning isn’t an enticing backdrop for a profitable farm business. The more saved, documented and valued, the more barns—and farms—that can remain in business. Image is important.

“So many have commented on our barn,” Hetherington says. “Hopefully, they take that back and look at their own barn and determine it needs some sprucing up, a coat of paint, whatever.”

Helping farmers succeed

HBFF of PA (www.pahistoricbarns.org) was founded, in part, to help ease the expense farmers have in keeping their barns functional and profitable. Among its projects, the foundation is pushing low-interest loan programs, grants and tax incentives through legislation at the state and federal levels that will allow farmers to save, renovate or preserve their barns for form and function. Even short-term repairs can avoid costly ones later.

“Working, struggling farmers will be able to incorporate and retrofit their historic barns into their operations, and not have to resort to demolishing them in the 21st century,” says Sheila A. Miller, HBFF of PA’s board president and co-founder. “Unfortunately, selling and dismantling these old barns has become a lucrative business. It’s difficult for farmers who are struggling economically to turn down these tempting offers to sell, especially when the century or two-century-old barns no longer fit the size of the operation.”

Each June, the foundation co-hosts a Pennsylvania barn conference to advocate the identification, documentation, protection and preservation of the state’s agrarian heritage. Part of its initial three-day 2007 event, which it co-hosted with the National Barn Alliance, included a tour of the barns of Oley Valley, Berks County. Last year, the annual meeting was in Gettysburg, Pa., and the tour centered on battlefield barns. This June, the conference and tour moves into southern Chester County in conjunction with S.A.V.E. (Safety, Agriculture, Villages and Environment, Inc.), a Kennett Square, Pa., nonprofit advocacy group.

Miller, formerly of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, past chair of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and classmates with Hetherington’s wife at the College of Agriculture at Penn State, has enlisted the state’s finest barn experts and historians for her board. Among its other practical goals is developing an approved list of technical consultants and qualified barn contractors for farmers, or preservationists, to use, and trust, when improving a barn as part of a farm’s profitability goals.

George Yonnone Restorations, a 40-year structural restoration specialist in Stockbridge, Mass., is called to farm projects that are rejected by local contractors. “I fix them, giving the building another 200 years of life,” he says.

He’s restored the 19th century Pennsylvania bank barn at Thornbrook, a 59-acre Civil War era farmstead in Thurmont, Md., that Linda Franklin and her husband use to store lumber and antique farm machinery. They’ve also had the foresight to restore its provisions for future livestock.

“We thought about putting a concrete floor in the stall portion,” she says. “The longer I thought about it, the more I wanted to make sure that the building could potentially be used for animals at some time. So, we have opted for a pounded dirt and lime mixture for the floor. It is traditional, firm, but not too hard for animals to stand on.”

The Franklin’s barn was featured on the 2008 Frederick Co. (MD) Barnstormer Tour, but before it’s rebirth it exhibited years of wear-and-tear common on a typical farm that was in use into the 1940s. Due to poor rainwater management, its stone foundation walls had shifted, one wall was beginning to collapse and sills were rotten or missing. The ends of floor joists were rotten, as was the floor in the hay mow and the roof line was beginning to sag.

“I routed nearly 1 mile of grooves into the floor boards,” says Franklin, who served as general contractor. “All doors in good condition were re-installed. We still need to have the large hay doors rebuilt, as they were too rotten to re-hang.”

Before the barn was lowered onto the foundation, working from photographs and numbered quoins, Cresthill Stoneworks in Marshall, Va., rebuilt the ashlar stone foundation to its near original condition and then re-pointed the rest of the foundation. “Sometimes I just go out and commune with my wall,” Franklin says.

A “small agricultural fraternity”

Hetherington’s father did the best he could. In the 1960s, he replaced the barn’s cedar shake roof with nailed-on aluminum. Wind storms weren’t kind, and he never painted the barn. Layers of laying hens’ manure, coupled with water exposure, practically rotted off the portion of the barn now used as the packing shed.

Between 2002 and 2004, the family barn was reborn. The Hetheringtons scrapped the roof to its original rafters, then installed new lathe and screwed-in aluminum panels. Above it, they’ve returned barn’s original center cupola.

The once-weathered siding has been replaced with 2-inch-thick, 14-inch-wide, 20-foot lengths of hemlock. Hetherington’s cousin’s sawmill custom-cut the planks. Inside, he replaced floor boards in the upper story with 2-inch-thick oak, and also several beams, including two corner posts, with hand-hewn white oak. “A lot of guys hang sheets of metal over old barn boards, but that’s not doing it right,” he says. “We tried to match the old in its original design in its original species (of wood).”

Bill Schuster, a Berks County hex sign painter, painted three 4-foot hex signs with a strawberry motif on masonite designed by Hetherington’s wife. They hang on the barn’s west side along with rebuilt ventilators made by another cousin, a retired shop teacher.

The Hetheringtons spent about $50,000. In the not so-distant past there were seven barns left in their end of the valley, but now, Hetherington says, his is just one of two remaining.

B&R Farms was also the first to sell development rights and attain preserved status in Schuylkill County. Most importantly, though, their farm can continue to provide a viable, sustainable living for the next generation.

“This is not for the average person,” Hetherington concludes. “As farmers, we tend to be frugal. It’s always about money, but sometimes it has to be about something else.”

Additional Information

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The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.