Let’s start with a brief historical background on the carriage barn structure and the people who provided for its stewardship over the years.
The barn was located in the Connecticut Western Reserve in LaGrange Township of Lorain, Ohio. The first settlers came to this area in 1825. The LaGrange Township map of 1851 shows the Rufus Freeman family purchased more than 100 acres out of the original lot 48-49.
As one of the earliest settlers, the family worked hard and were close to the land.
Handed down. The next owners were the Jacob and Hannah (Purdy) Swartz family and their five children. Their daughter Cora stayed on the farmstead and later married Ray D. Johnson, and much of his prosperity as a farmer had come from the dairy business.
Cora Johnson had nine children and a son named Erwin who was the last descendent of the family to own the farmstead.
The Johnson farm at that time consisted of the following buildings: a large dairy barn with silo, milk house, corncrib, granary, a small house close to the road and the main house, which was ornate with the associated carriage barn.
Changing hands. Frank Mohr bought the property and structures from the estate of Erwin Johnson.
The carriage barn has been the only surviving structure from the original farmstead. When I first saw the barn it was severely overgrown with vegetation, sinking into the ground and yet it had a commanding presence from the road.
The framing style, hand-hewn timbers and cut nails indicated a circa date for the carriage barn of 1855.
I was very much impressed with the high level of craftsmanship and the detailing of its architectural fabric. The cupola that proudly sits on top of the barn is of a later period and heavily influenced by the Italianate style.
The layout of the barn suggests that it was constructed to facilitate some type of carriage trade. At the least, it was exclusively used to support the refined travel needs of the Freeman family. The Freeman, and later the Johnson family, were prominent families in the history of LaGrange Township.
This was no ordinary abandoned barn by any means and therefore, I was bound and determined to find the owner.
Deal is done. After searching for a few weeks and running down leads, I finally was able to locate and contact the current owner, Mohr. We discussed my passion for traditional rural architecture and I mentioned my concerns for this historic structure.
I inquired about his plans for the barn and its preservation. He indicated that the barn was situated on land that was currently being leased for farming and the structure was considered to be obsolete.
Therefore, in the eyes of the current landowner, the barn was a liability and no longer of any agricultural value.
As a preservationist, I told him that the barn should be stabilized for future restoration and that it was a unique and embellished farming structure. This was not to be, so to save the barn I offered to purchase the building and dismantle/reconstruct it on my homestead in the Peninsula Village Historic District.
Mohr said that he would think about it and I should return within a week to discuss it further. I returned with my family in tow and we assured him that we would make great stewards for this architectural antique barn.
A purchase agreement was finalized, and I had 16 months to complete the work.
Tales, history. I wanted the community to understand that my family and I did not just want the barn but also the stories from the past. It was important me that I gather as much of the written and oral history as possible. Taking this approach fosters a trust and truly creates an open dialogue with the town and its people.
Board by board, I was moving a piece of history. The carriage barn was located two miles east of LaGrange on the north side of state Route 303.
This 27-mile journey east on state Route 303 to the Village of Peninsula would relocate this historic structure in the heart of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Each piece of the barn is tagged and cataloged for later reconstruction on the south side of the street and once again will be visible for all to enjoy.
Some of the significant architectural features of the barn include the varied fenestrations throughout the structure. The louvered windows with their tooled exterior casing and top scroll work, shaped battens, period ornamental hardware, interior bead board paneling, original horse stalls and hand-carved feeding trough and the architectural detailing of the cupola that also functions for ventilation are all a part of this barn.
This type of a project is a hands-on example of preservation as living history.
Public perception. I was able to engage people in the community to reflect on their past while also showcasing the importance and diversity of our agricultural roots to my children.
I felt it was critical during the dismantling process to utilize the local media as a means to tell the story of this structure and educate the people on the importance of rural preservation.
Many people from all walks of life stopped by to share stories about the carriage barn and farmstead. They also indicated their support for rural architecture and saving this structure.
I had the pleasure of meeting Hazel Hopkins, a granddaughter of Cora Johnson, who told me much about the family history and shared memories of the barn and family farmstead.
She was very happy and excited to know that her grandfather’s carriage barn would be saved.
Hopkins visited the site many times during the dismantling process and brought an old photo that showed the structure and surrounding buildings.
I also had the opportunity to talk with another family member, Bill Johnson, who restores vintage Gibson tractors.
Dismantling. After all the architectural fabric was removed, a crane was used to lift off the cupola as an element so as not to destroy it’s detailing. The barn frame was then dismantled by lowering one bent at a time so that it was disassembled for shipping.
My son Drake had a vision of pulling the barn home on wheels and he thought I was crazy to take it apart piece by piece. He was right: I am crazy about the preservation of our environment, and I am thankful that my family supports my passion.
Who would of thought that 150 years later, the Johnson family carriage barn would be saved and relocated, thereby allowing our children’s children to have the opportunity to watch it gracefully age.
Just think what these barns could tell us if only they could talk! So I ask you to take the time to listen and you’ll be surprised what you’ll hear.
Mission. As a founding board member of The Friends of Ohio Barn, I think it is important to mention that our mission statement is as follows: “To support and promote through education the awareness and understanding of the significance of Ohio’s historic barns within their agricultural context, and their maintenance requirements. To encourage programs that provide resources for their stewardship and conservation as a lasting icon of our cultural heritage.”
(The author, Larry Sulzer, is a board member of Friends of Ohio Barns. You can contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)