A traditional timber frame craftsman

I lost a very dear friend and colleague the other day and so did the community of barn people who cherish barns as working buildings and historic structures that contribute to our cultural landscape.

His name was Joe J. Miller Jr., or just “Junior,” the son of Joseph J. “Josie” Miller, the legendary Amish barn builder.

His great-uncle Dan Weaver was a timber framer who built traditional barns throughout his life and passed down these skills to his father, Josie. Therefore, Joe was a third generation Amish timber framer and barn builder who carried on a rich family tradition of crafting buildings for the American farmstead.

Miller story. Joe was the sixth child of seven children born to Josie and Fannie Miller on March 8, 1953 in Kidron, Ohio.

He attended a one-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade and was well versed on American history. He enjoyed discussing Civil War history with noted historian Shelby Foot.

Joe’s devotion to reading and books, in particular Victor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and his love of knowledge was a passion that he pursued throughout his life. Animals, genealogy and music were also areas of special interest.

His mother Fannie had taught him how to play the pocket harp that was usually with him and he would often played traditional folk or country songs. It has been said that the guitar, the fiddle and the harmonica provide the music for the Amish at barn dances.

Joe was always ready for a musical celebration and he really enjoyed the music and lyrical writing of Crosby Stills Nash and Young. He truly shared his mother’s intellectual curiosity, love of people and demonstrated his Amish belief through his actions and deeds.

Vocations. Joe pursued many vocations during his short life as a farmer, carpenter, woodworker, dairyman and finally as a traditional craftsman.

The influence of his father’s barn building skills and work ethic left a lasting impression on his son. Joe has said that he gained his appreciation and knowledge about barns and joinery by listening to the conversations of his father with the many clients over the years.

Since 1940 Josie has been building and raising timber frame barns and structures with currently over 500 completed. When Joe was 39 years old he redirected his energy and life’s work to traditional timber framing.

Acting as Josie’s assistant they embarked on building The Liberty Barn Church. Its been said that this barn structure is probably one of the tallest and largest timber frame public buildings recently built in North America.

Liberty Barn Church. The post and beam two-floored structure took over three years to construct and was 76 feet wide, 120 feet long, 56 feet wide within the sanctuary and almost 100 feet high from the lower level to the and top of the weathervane on the copula.

The structure consisted of seven bents with the largest post being 14 inch by 14 inch by 26 feet with two 12 inch by 16 inch by 32 feet cross ties per bent.

The gable end walls were constructed of poured concrete faced with split stone. The finish flooring was 5 quarter sawn shag bark hickory finished with black walnut pegs.

Involvement. After seeing this monumental project through to completion, Joe toured Alaska with Josie to celebrate and fulfill a lifelong dream of his father’s.

Joe has been involved with many preservation and new timber frame barns and structures over the years.

He has participated with the Ohio Barn Again program by demonstrating traditional framing layout and joinery. He has given of his time and talents to support the mission of the Kidron Community Historical Society.

His barns have been showcased at “The Big E” Eastern Exposition in Springfield, Mass. His restoration work has allowed him to travel around the country repairing, dismantling and reconstructing buildings of historical significance.

Lasting mark. Some of the building types he has worked on are museums, churches, stagecoach inns, log cabins, blacksmith shops, barns and residences.

Fortunately for historians, preservationist and barn enthusiasts, there are dedicated craftsman like Joe Miller Jr. who have a strong passion for continuing the stewardship of traditional post and beam barns and outbuilding.

A strong sense of community was always an important element in the fabric of Joe’s life. I had the opportunity to experience this first hand by participating in an Amish barn raising that celebrates this tradition. It is an experience that is very humbling and something that I’ll always remember.

Barn raising. Timelessly, a barn is still built in a day by the power of men and women coming together for the benefit of a neighbor.

So at 6 a.m. the call of “On nuf, on nuf! On up, on up!” could be heard as the cry from the master barn builder which speaks to the great power of people and mankind to lift the mighty heavy bents.

The barn raising and other community activities foster a strong sense of brotherhood that is totally lacking in today’s society. Its been said that barns represent the dreams and ambitions of farmers but it also functions as a rural icon that showcases our great agricultural heritage.

Joe was a man of many gifts with knowledge and wisdom beyond his years. He always enjoyed a good story and was never at a loss for words.

His smile, handshake and laughter touched the hearts of many people. It never failed that his clients became his friends and as friends we were all blessed to have known him.

Something to ponder. Joe’s mother Fannie had once said about Josie, “He will be building barns till he dies.”

Never did she think that her words would apply to her son, but I’m sure she would have been very proud of the road he traveled.

We will think of you often when we travel the backroads.

(The author, Larry Sulzer, is a board member of Friends of Ohio Barns. You can contact him by e-mail at friendsohiobarns@aol.com or by fax at 330-624-0501. Sulzer can also be reached by mail at P.O. Box 19, Peninsula, OH 44264 or on the Web at http://ohiobarns.osu.edu.)

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