A Smoky Mountain Barn Raising!

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It’s a proven fact: By working together, people can make “impossible” dreams come true.

When Bill Godfrey retired to his western North Carolina farm a few years ago, he brought along an antique horse-drawn surrey that he’d acquired (it was love at first sight!) during a trip to Vermont. However, his new neighbors soon warned Bill of the danger in riding a brakeless buggy around the curving, hilly back roads of the Great Smokies . . . so the relocated Californian decided to search for a way to make his surrey safer.

Before long Bill had hooked up with another buggy enthusiast, and together they designed and built a complete braking system for the carriage. That experience was rewarding enough to cement Bill’s fascination with horse-drawn vehicles . . . and his collection eventually grew to include four buggies, two sleighs, two farm wagons, a stagecoach and a covered wagon.

Now Bill knew that his vehicles would suffer if left exposed to the typically wet and stormy weather of that mountain region. For a time he housed his buggies in a neighbor’s barn, but when the owner was forced to use that shelter himself, Bill decided to indulge his hobby one step further by constructing a massive outbuilding on his own property.

Planning for a Small Barn

When most folks plan a barn, they try their best to be sure the building will be practical and inexpensive. And Bill Godfrey did indeed choose a design that was utilitarian . . . but it was also aesthetically appealing and downright extravagant-looking! Unfortunately, when Godfrey approached an architectural firm with his plan, the company’s engineers claimed that the structure was “impossible to build” . . . despite Bill’s knowledge that the Gothic-style barn which inspired his design has been standing on a New York farm for more than 45 years.

Well, nothing gets a stubborn person’s dander up like the word “impossible.” Deciding to go ahead without the help of the architectural consultants, the chariot collector and one of his neighbors (who happened to be a building contractor) drafted plans for a 40-by-80 foot structure that — when completed — would tower more than three stories high!

Hold a Barn-Raising Party

Construction began in early May. With the assistance of a growing group of interested neighbors and acquaintances, the men logged native oak, poplar and pine from the abundant resources surrounding the farm . . . and sawed the materials to size with a homemade sawmill. The barn-building was a “saw as you go” operation, too, with the crew at first mostly cutting 2-by-4s and 2-by-6-foot framing pieces and -foot poplar boards (of random widths) for the flooring and sub-floor.

After the sub-floor was completed, Bill’s helpers laid out forms for the structure’s homemade laminated ribs . . . using a schematic diagram that the contractor had discovered in an old carpentry book. This was accomplished by first dividing the width of the barn into thirds along the plate line. Arcs were then drawn from the two marked points . . . in effect, setting a compass on the left-hand point to determine the right side of the roof’s curve, and swinging the arc for the left side from the right-hand point.

Once the pattern was established, a roof jig was constructed on the sub-floor by nailing form blocks in place. The men fastened the first set of blocks 3 inches outside the two scribed arcs. Then, allowing for the thickness of the rafter (5-1/4 feet) plus the 3 inches, they nailed corresponding blocks in place inside the lines.

The resulting form was used to secure bent 3/4-by-3-foot pine boards that varied from 10 to 16 feet long, which workers first glued together and then reinforced with 8-penny nails. The joints in each of the seven layers (where one length of 3/4-by-3-foot plank ended and the next began) were always separated by at least 2 feet. After all the layers were joined together, the men drove hardwood wedges into the spaces between the two rafters and the outer blocks to securely clamp the boards.

The rafters didn’t need to cure in the form . . . only to remain until the glue had dried thoroughly and all the nails had been driven. Then, before the curved members were removed from the jig, the top ends were plumb-cut: The center point was determined by dividing the width of the barn in two and extending a line perpendicular from that midpoint to the top of the arch formed by the left and right ribs . . . and the end of each laminated arc was cut vertically at a distance from that line equaling half the width of the timber that would later become the ridge board.

Building a Barn

The men hand-set the ribs 32 inches apart, on center, and nailed them in place using movable staging to install and secure the ridge board. The lower end of each rafter was tied into the rim joist (the sub-flooring having been cut away to permit access).

Bill and his crew sheathed the top of the structure with 1-by-6 tongue-in-groove pine siding, working from inside the barn to close in the lower two-thirds of the roof, and on the outside — using toe boards for support — to finish the upper third. After the entire arched roof was covered with 7,200 square feet of asphalt shingles, the barn was completed by more or less standard construction procedures.

Completing the Barn

Once the work was done, the neighbors and friends who’d joined together in the creation of Bill Godfrey’s new showplace wanted to share the joy they felt in their accomplishment, so they staged an old-fashioned, down-home hoedown! The whole valley was invited to attend and each guest was asked to bring a covered dish. The barn builders roasted two pigs for the occasion, too, and the local string band and a team of mountain cloggers provided entertainment.

More than 200 people participated in the fun and — after the partying wound down — watched with pleasure and satisfaction as Bill Godfrey drove each antique wagon into its beautiful, spacious, impossible home.