There are few images that create a more indelible impression
of American frontier life and community spirit than that of a barn
raising. The barn was often the first
structure on the land, as it held both hay and housed livestock , which would
be the family's livelihood. In those
times, it took a community to build a barn. They had to bring down the trees themselves, and rough cut the lumber. It would take many skills to build – someone
to make the nails, carpenters, loggers ... all set to the task of bringing up the
I knew about a “barn raising”, because I had read about
them. These were the sort of things that
happened on the edge of civilization, in remote frontier towns. Until we built a barn of our own and
experienced the kindness of neighbors firsthand, I would have thought the
notion of a barn raising to be a quaint relic of the past.
As our first foray into land ownership, we had chosen Perry
County, in southern Indiana.
We had been looking at acreage for quite sometime, but had
been dissatisfied with our searches locally. In truth, we didn't even have a fully-formed notion of what we wanted
out of our ideal property, only that we wanted to live out in the country and
away from the hurried urgency of city life. Eventually, we settled on a piece of land 3 hours away from where we
Perry County boasted 60,000 acres of the Hoosier National
Forest and touched the Ohio River at it's border. Traveling along the Ohio River Scenic Byway, you
would catch commanding views - rolling hills stretching out in either
The property was perched atop what was colloquially known as
“Etienne Hill”, named after the family that owned much of the surrounding
land. A mile down the hill, the Ohio
River bent south and then west again, while tugboats chugged along the muddy
Together with another couple (close friends of ours), we had
purchased 80 acres which adjoined the national forest at the back.
Half of the land was arable, while the back was forested and
converged into a gully. Walking a few
hundred feet off the property line and into the national forest, there was a
small waterfall which trickled over a sheer rock face, and a creek which wound
its way deeper into the woods.
Excited with the prospect of land ownership, we had taken
the weekend to drive down to survey the land a bit more and make our
barn-building plans. I love imagining
and dreaming best of all, so this was probably my favorite part of the whole
So, on a Saturday morning, my wife Leah and I piled into a
truck with our friends Tim and Nicol, and made the drive from Cincinnati, Ohio
to Magnet, Indiana. After 3 hours of
being crammed together in the truck, we pulled off the scenic byway and on to
the gravel road which fronted the property. We stopped, and let the truck idle.
In the past, a local farmer (Freddie) had maintained the
front 10 acres, alternating between corn and soybeans. Now, the acreage had gone fallow and was
overgrown. Normally, we would drive
through the field and park at the first fence line.
However, the past several days had dumped rain across Perry
County, making the land a soggy mess. Undeterred, we revved the engine of our little 2 wheel drive company
truck, and plowed into the field. We
weren't halfway through before we got stuck.
The wheels just spun, but couldn't find any purchase. Tim shifted into reverse. The wheels spun more. Each attempt to free our truck from the mud
just sunk the tires deeper.
I recalled that there was a pile of chopped logs near the
back of the property (where the tilled acreage met the woods), and suggested
getting some to provide some leverage and traction. Iclimbed out of the truck, into the mud, and trudged off toward the log
While I was on my little sojourn to the back of the
property, Tim doggedly persisted to spin the tires in an attempt to get
out. Forward and reverse. Back and forth. Back and forth. Forward and reverse. Back and forth. Until,
with enough friction (despite the water and mud) the weeds erupted in
With brush fire leaping out from under the truck, everyone
quickly scrambled out.
They stared at the fire with incredulity. It had been wet enough to get the truck
inextricably stuck, but the weeds had caught fire nonetheless. They stood in the muck and mire, watching more
weeds erupt in flames.
“You should move the truck”, Leah suggested (briefly
forgetting what had gotten us into the mess in the first place).
Tim gave her a withering look.
Terrified at the prospect of having to explain to his boss
why the company vehicle had blown up, Tim leapt into action. He dove toward the fire, wildly flinging his
arms at the flames, in an attempt to put the fire out with his arm hairs and
damper the fire with sheer determination. Nicol and Leah stood, watching as Tim beat himself against the fire.
It didn't take long to realize that Tim's efforts were
insufficient. Out of corner of her eye,
Nic saw the tell-tale signs of a vehicle. Over the tops of the brush and weeds, a dust cloud was slowly making its way down the gravel road. Nicol sprinted (as well as you could sprint in
mud and weeds) toward the road.
Leah remained near Tim and the truck with a full gas tank
sitting on top of flames. That was when
Leah had an epiphany. She plunged her
hands into the muddy ground and yelled at Tim, “Mud! Mud!” Expecting another helpful “you should move
the truck” comment, Tim didn't pause from beating the flames with his
arms ... and then her suggestion sunk it. They both dug down and started flinging clops of mud at the flames.
Nic was already out of earshot of the “plop plop plop” sound
of hurling mud-balls. Having reached sight of the gravel road and
the car meandering by, Nic made a last mad dash. In her rush to flag down the passing car, she
had forgotten about the ditch. Nicol
stumbled forward, lost her footing, and nosedived into the road. She landed in a puff of gravel dust. At the site of a girl flying out of the brush
and belly-flopping into road, the car did, indeed, stop.
As Nicol stood up, fine chunks of gravel fell off her, while
other bits clung tenaciously, still pressed into her flesh. In a tone born of panic, she frantically told
them about the brush fire. Calls were
made, and within minutes, locals had converged on the scene, to help the city
kids and watch the now smoldering remnants of a brush fire.
By this time, whistling blithely, I had returned to the
scene with the blocks of wood (it takes awhile to walk to the back of the
property). I was pleased to see that
others had stopped to help us get our truck out of the mud. The slight smell of smoke and singed arm hair
still hung in the air. Happily ignorant
of what had transpired (and oblivious enough to not notice the scorched and
blackened earth spreading out from under the truck), I dropped the logs and
joined in on the conversation.
It was a strange (if slightly embarrassing) way to meet our
neighbors, but it couldn't have been more opportune. It was our first introduction to the Etienne
family, with whom we became fast friends. They weren't just neighbors. These were people who would work nearly as much as we did, building the
barn. These were people that would take
5 young kids (strangers, at the time) into their house, and let them spend the
nights in their basement every weekend over the course of the summer.
And it would prove to be a very long summer.
This is part 1 of a series of barn raising blogs,
based on his experience of building a barn in southern Indiana in the summer of
2004. Dan credits the Indiana barn
raising as the point that the idea of self-reliance germinated in his mind.
Dan Adams presented workshops at the Puyallup, Wash. 2012 MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR and will be at the Seven Springs, Pa. FAIR.
Please visit the FAIR website for more information about the Seven Springs, Pa., FAIR Sept. 24-25. Tickets are on sale now.
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