Barn Demolition: Of Crowbar and Profanity

From the disassembly techniques used to the strange characters making up the work crew, barn demolition can be a fertile source of humorous anecdotes.


| January/February 1983



barn demolition - old shingles

The Barn demolition project began with the removal of old wooden shingles, layer upon layer of them, with "a crowbar and profanity."


Photo by Fotolia/Gudellaphoto

An Ohio ruralite and essayist, John Baskin has recently published an intriguing book called In Praise of Practical Fertilizer. In it (and in his earlier New Burlington: The Life & Death of an American Village), John paints a many-textured picture of rural life that entertained our editors so much, we just had to share a sample of it with you. (At one point, he even pokes a little friendly fun at MOTHER EARTH NEWS itself, calling it "a periodical for people who feel up the creek without a parable.") It wasn't easy to pick just one chapter to share with you — it meant passing up such gems as "Provocative Vegetables" and "Ruminations on Cow Manure" — but we think you'll be pleased with the following selection on barn demolition and wood recovery.


I have just finished tearing down an old barn, using the time-honored methods of crowbar and profanity. The barn, which belonged to a neighbor, had been damaged by a high wind, and I brought the old building down on its sills as much by an artful use of curt Anglo-Saxon as by the crowbar.

I began on the roof, peeling off the wooden shingles. It looked to be a simple job until I discovered there were about a half-dozen layers where the owner had kept re-roofing the barn over the preceding layer. Future archaeologists, uncovering a section of this roof, would no doubt be able to date the leaky cycles of consternation in the owner's life by each stratum of shingles. These layers, of course, made the roof exceedingly heavy. It suggested to me why the old barns contained much stalwart underpinning: to hold up the shingles.

I found that by standing underneath, on the top beams, I could punch the interwoven sections off with a long pole. It made a fine shower of shingles, and I made a mental note of the wreckage as splendid kindling for the winter.

Soon the old girl was immodestly down to her underpinnings. (I say "girl" here because, as with the French, all things have a gender to me, and old barns, like ocean liners, are feminine.) Modesty aside, she was quite a sight. The whole northern end was still in good shape, hand-cut 10-by-10s in the bents held snugly in place by flawless mortise-and-tenon joints.

I wondered if this was one of Frank Stanley's barns. Mr. Stanley, who built many of the old barns of my neighborhood, never built a barn with anything but hardwood pegs in the joints. He scorned nails because he thought the wind twisted them. Because of men like Mr. Stanley, the barn architecture at one time in the neighborhood rivaled the craftsmanship of the houses. In some places, the barn took aesthetic precedence over the house. There are still a few of these farms left near me. The magnificent barn stands quietly behind the farmhouse, in the manner of a family portrait where the pretty child is overshadowed by the lovely mother. I once heard of a man who spared no expense keeping his barn in immaculate shape but refused to put indoor plumbing in the house. He said it was too much of an investment, and besides, he spent most of his time in the barn anyway.





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