Rebuilding a New England Barn

Reader Contribution by Kirsten Lie-Nielsen and Days Ferry Organics
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Our barn was built around 1820, in the New England or Yankee style. Its huge timber frame structure has been modified and adjusted over the years to accommodate the farmer’s needs, and the ramshackle interior was full of debris when we started work.

When Mainers first started settling the land, open-floor barns were popular. This gave the farmer space to thresh his wheat, and the only livestock on a northern homestead at the turn of the last century would be a few milk cows and the family horse, perhaps a pig or a flock of poultry. As time passed, cattle grew in popularity and the ability to house large numbers of dairy and meat cows became paramount. Mechanical threshers eliminated the need for threshing floors, and the abundance of cattle meant that extensive grain and hay storage was required.

Our goal with this rebuild was not specifically to restore the barn’s historical integrity. While we tried to be as true to the old building as possible, our ultimate objective was to have a space for our animals and work. So, while we maintained as much of the original structure as possible, functionality was the priority.

Our barn’s open frame was adapted over time, with a warren of hay lofts above and a silo for grain storage in one corner. Cow stalls lined one entire side of the barn, and the other was a mix of more room for cows and a few stalls that probably held goats or pigs. Having been virtually untouched, and certainly not actively used, for over twenty-five years meant that many of the dividers between the stalls were falling over, and some of the lofts sagged noticeably.

The problem with a big building like a barn on a property that isn’t being farmed is that it often becomes a receptacle for the family possessions that are no longer in use. Our barn had barrels of aging feed, a defunct antique grain mill, mounds of drying corn husks and a few useful tools like shovels and hammers. In addition to all that “stuff”, there were over fifty bales of moldy, ancient hay, and piles of droppings from the porcupines that had taken up residence under the building.

Our first task in our barn was to clear out the various debris. Dust masks, safety glasses, and work clothes were required in discarding the hay and droppings. Stalls, walls, and haylofts were removed and the leftover lumber collected for future building projects.

Once the barn had been brought back to basics, it was time to start rebuilding. The right-hand side of the barn and the central isle’s floors were mostly solid, and flipping the floorboards over gave us a clean surface. The floors on the left-hand side of the barn, and a few spots elsewhere, needed to be replaced.

On the left-hand long side of the barn it appeared that cow manure had been left to pile up for several years. The debris was at least a foot thick, and fortunately came out in large, solid chunks. The most messy part of the removal complete, we were able to reuse the old support beams and lay new flooring on top of them.

One section of the barn had a concrete floor poured. This was probably done in the mid-1900s, for easier removal of manure. Unfortunately, it didn’t last, and was broken into large, disintegrating chucks. Interestingly, the area where the concrete floor was poured was also the only place in the barn where the sill needed replacing. Therefore, we used a sledgehammer to break up and remove and the remaining concrete, and replaced the floors with wood to match the rest of the barn.

We also rebuilt the gable end doors to the barn from scratch, though were were able to reuse the original sliders for them. Many of the tools we found in the barn’s piles of refuse were also put to immediate use in the build.

At the end of a winter’s worth of work, we’ve found ourselves with a structurally sound, useable building with stalls for goats, chickens, and geese and plenty of workspace. A lot of sweat-equity went into rehabbing the barn, but little money had to be spent as the majority of the work was removal, not building.

If you find yourself with an old barn, remember that this building is a unique part of America’s agricultural history. They aren’t hard to save if you’re willing to put the work in. As farmers, we had a choice to build our own or rebuild something old, and we got great efficiency and saved money by working with what we had.

Kirsten Lie-Nielsen currently farms 2 acres of a suburban homestead using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Recently she has begun work restoring an old barn and 100 acres of overgrown fields in hopes of farming full time in the future. Find her online at Hostile Valley Living, and read all of Kirsten’s posts here.

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