Our farm’s Gambrel barn in this morning’s snowstorm. Photo by Kara Berlage
The blizzard winds whip outside, rumbling as tiny snow particles whirl about and bite at my face. I’m all bundled up, dragging my black sled filled with bags of feed and my trusty egg bucket off to the coops. I pause a moment to look up from my deep snow trudging to assess the size of upcoming drifts. The old barn catches my eye, every grain of weathered wood on its siding packed with snowflakes like a rushed frosting job on a chocolate cake. It’s a monument of beauty amongst the furious winds and demands of continued shoveling.
It’s a special year for our barn because it turns 100 years old. The barn might have been even older, except for playing out of family drama with the barn’s makers. E. P. Fullington and his son Lloyd (the original homesteading family) got into a heated argument while constructing the New England-style Gambrel barn and Lloyd stormed off to town. The family didn’t hear from him for three years because he had enlisted in WW1. Upon his return, father and son finished the barn in 1919.
Made from hand-hewn tamarack timbers harvested from the farm’s swampland that have cured as hard as iron and clad in white pine boards that were never painted, the barn became a distinctive landmark within our own family when Grandma and Grandpa bought the homestead from the Fullingtons in Easter of 1968. I remember sneaking in through the weathered door to play in the loose hay strewn about in piles on the floor, laying down to look up into the rafters and timbering above. Sparrows and barn swallows flitted from beam to beam, chirping merrily. It seemed like such a peaceful place.
Family archive image of the barn in wintertime before it was restored. Family archive.
But even with its sturdy construction and a good roof overhead, the barn was showing its age. The south wing was sinking downward, doors were falling apart, and great gaps in the siding made it easy for creatures such as wood chucks to come and go as they pleased. When Mom, Kara, and I moved onto the farm full-time in 2,000, it became clear that the barn would be needed as a working building instead of just an aesthetic icon.
Time for Renewal
The first step was to clear out all the debris inside and around the barn—old lawn mowers, gates, bits of fence, buckets, scrap metal, old windows. In piles around the perimeter of the barnyard and inside both of the shed wings, junk was everywhere from the Fullington days. I don’t know how many trailer loads we hauled away, but as a young teenager it seemed like the project would go on forever. Musty, dusty smells, rust on my gloves, broken glass. It’s amazing how entropy can take a place over, freezing it in time. But as each square foot was slowly reclaimed, the revitalization of the farm took another step forward.
Grandpa then hired a crew from Michigan that specialized in restoring barns. They arrived in their full-sized semi-truck—working from the shop in the back and sleeping in the living quarters in the front. They were a hard-working crew—jacking up the barn, shoring up the south end, and adding cement footers beneath the timbers. Utilizing the historic boards from the back of the building, they re-clad the front and used new boards on the back that would whether to a matching gray within a few years. They also built new sliding doors on the back that were big enough to bring in equipment, as well as made a vertical sliding door for the old hay hook opening at the top front. New doors, new windows, and a fresh metal roof left the barn shining in its second life glory.
There used to be so many barns in the area, especially at the height of farming in the Northwoods in the 1940’s. But as the region transitioned away from farming the fragile, sandy soils towards resort and recreation industries, many of the barns have suffered or disappeared. I remember the heartbreak of watching the barn on Moose Lake Road near the corner of Co. Hwy A list to the side and finally collapse, leaving only the block concrete silo and one gnarly tree to mark its original location.
Throughout this year, in celebration of our barn’s 100th birthday, I’ll be sprinkling in more stories and pictures of this historic structure. I am also building a new slideshow for Farmstead Creamery that celebrates the story of our barn. It surprised me how many pictures we’ve taken of this one structure in our family’s 51 years on the homestead. If one barn could have such a profound impact on our family and the many families we’ve touched over the years, how much is lost when one barn collapses in decay?
Outside, the wind is still howling, the snow still whirling past the window as I write. And the barn? It’s standing strong, protecting the sheep inside. They peer with wooly faces out the back door, wondering when spring is coming. How different their lives would be if the barn had fallen into decay years ago. It takes dedication and effort to keep old structures going, but the respect of the living legacy is worth it. Here’s to the next 100 years for our barn! See you down on the farm sometime..
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com
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