Exploring The Last Green Valley: Old New England barns stand test of time

Exploring The Last Green Valley: Old New England barns stand test of time

I have been fascinated with barns since I was very young.

The old barn at my grandparents’ farm in New Hampshire was always my first stop during our visits.

While it had ceased being used for its original purpose of housing animals and storing hay, it was where my grandparents kept their car and stored lots of gardening equipment and several large trunks filled with 60-plus years of family memories.

I would explore the huge building, climbing up the ladder to the upper mows and feeling the cool dark air of its hidden corners.

Two stalls were occupied long ago by large draft horses and an old hand-made wooden cattle stanchion had been used to tether cows for milking. Still hanging from the center roof beam was an ominous-looking hay fork with a rope and pulley mechanism used to lift hay from a wagon to the upper mow.

From 1978-1988, I worked in Old Sturbridge Village’s farm program demonstrating and interpreting early New England farming traditions to the museum’s visitors. I knew the ins and outs of every barn at the museum, and over the years I have enjoyed exploring and examining several old barns in our region.

I look for old barns when driving the back roads of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor.

I am familiar with several antique barns in our region and I’ll usually slow down to take a quick look when I drive past. Each one tells a story about the time period it was constructed as well as its past and current use.

I’ll check for a sagging roof or leaning wall and hope to see the familiar outline still standing tall.

Over the years I have learned a few simple ways to determine the age of an old barn. Of course, the best means is to look at the actual land records, such as deeds, with dates of purchase that also list structures.

My grandparents purchased their farm in 1933 and the deed for the land includes a long list of previous owners going back to when the town was first incorporated in the 1700s.

The land changed hands only a few times before a deed dated 1793 states, “with structures thereon.” That 1793 deed provides the first clue that the house and barn were built sometime before 1793.

Without a deed or construction records, a quick look at the outline of a barn as well as an examination of the interior wood can usually determine the antiquity of the building.

To really know a barn is to examine its bones — the beams and boards still visible that make up its interior structure.

Prior to the early 1800s, most barns in New England were in the English style, typically with three main sections or bays.

English-style barns are built with large hand-hewn beams that are fitted together with wooden pegs and braced into place to form a large box or frame.

The center bay was the “drive” bay where carts of hay and farm produce were off-loaded into one of the side bays or mows for storage. The other side bay was typically used for housing livestock.

Another defining feature of English-style barns is large swinging doors fitted to the sidewall of the structure with long iron strap hinges mounted on iron pintles.

A quick look at the old barn at my grandparents’ farm, complete with long hand-hews beams, three bays and sidewall entrance, confirms that it is indeed an English-style barn.

During the first decades of the 1800s, a new style of barn began to emerge on the farm landscape. Commonly referred to as the New England style, it has several key features including the location of barn doors on the gable end, rather than the sidewall.

Thanks in part to new advances in sawmill technology, with large circular saws powered by steam or improved waterpower systems, most New England-style barns are built primarily with sawn beams rather than the traditional English-style, hand-hewn beams of earlier years.

The type of saw marks on the sheathing and beams of an old barn can provide clues as to its antiquity. Early water-powered sawmills used straight blades, powered in an up and down or reciprocating motion. By the mid-1800s water and then steam-powered sawmills used large circular saw blades in lumber production.

The circular blades leave a telltale circular or curved mark on the boards and beams, whereas the straight blades leave a straight mark. I have found that English-style barns that still have their original sheathing will typically have straight or up and down saw marks and the New England-style barns typically have circular saw marks.

Here in The Last Green Valley, there are several antique barns that are open to the public. Many are part of museum collections such as the barns located at Old Sturbridge Village. The barns at the Black Tavern Historical Society in Dudley, Mass., Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, and the Brunn Barn at the Woodstock Fairgrounds also come to mind as good examples.

One of the more unique barns in the region is actually a restaurant – the Golden Lamb Buttery in Brooklyn is a magnificent New England-style barn that has served as a fine restaurant for many years. Despite its modern use, the bones are visible, beams and all.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of barns in New England, the go-to book for many years has been “Big house, little house, back house barn: the connected farm buildings of New England” by Thomas Hubka.

A helpful source for information about Connecticut barns can be found online at connecticuthistory.org; enter “barns” in the search tab for an interesting article on barn design in Connecticut by Holly V. Izard.

I am pleased to report that the old barn at my grandparents’ farm still stands. Other than an occasional roof replacement and new set of doors, the barn is much the way it was when I first explored its hidden mysteries more than 55 years ago.

The roof doesn’t sag, the walls don’t lean, and for 225 years it has proudly stood watch over the land — a silent reminder to New England’s agricultural past.

We live in a beautiful region full of architectural gems. From the grandest house to the lowliest barn, all are to be appreciated as part of our shared heritage.

I hope you’ll join me in exploring all there is to see here in The Last Green Valley. Together let us share it, enjoy it and pass it on.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.