Some stepping up to save old barns


“I want to save every barn I possibly can. It’s a good feeling to know I’m preserving part of our heritage. These barns belong not only to our past, but to our future.”

– John High, Lancaster County, Pa., American Profile, 2003

There is no doubt about it, the American barn is an endangered species.

Facts show that in 1920, there were more than 6.5 million barns in the United States. More current figures show that this figure is dwindling to less than half that.

Many children have never seen a barn, except for pictures in books, let alone played inside one. One man is trying hard to change all of that.

The Barn Saver. Featured in American Profile news last August, the story of the man known as “The Barn Saver” is told.

John High left his excavating job in 1990 – a job that had him bulldozing old houses and barns to make room for developments. He started The Barn Saver Project, setting himself to the task of saving those old buildings that he’d always hated destroying.

First project. His first project was an 1880s vintage bank barn that had been built in to a hillside. Hill began taking it apart piece by piece, board by board.

He saves everything, from built-in troughs to lightning rods to flooring and windows.

Many of the barns that are dismantled are set up again elsewhere, and for those, Hill draws blueprints, using them to number each piece of wood.

Science and art. Years ago, I watched the blueprinting of an old barn, then the dismantling of it.

Three men worked hard for many days to recreate the barn on paper before any of the crow bars came out.

One of the men showed me around, pointing out amazing features that this particular barn possessed: dovetailed pieces of lumber in the granary, amazing hand-hewn beams, incredible workmanship throughout.

A small room built with an interior stone wall in the lower part of the barn prompted lots of discussion and speculation about its purpose.

Old barns’ wonder. What impressed me the most at that time was that there were actually people out there who recognized the wonder of these old barns.

Since that time, I have been heartened to learn that there are some great organizations in many of the Midwest states working to preserve these great old structures.

Family history. I feel lucky to know the story of my great-great grandfather, Samuel Young, who built a large, beautiful home for his family, followed by a banked barn 10 years later in 1893.

It was 40-by-100 with 20-foot posts and a slate roof, then painted yellow to match the Victorian house.

Truman Gault built the barn, with his carpenters, and each was paid $1.25 a day. It would be interesting to know how many days and how many carpenters worked on this particular barn.

Through generations. One story that was passed down through the generations is of a one-armed man named Adam Young who would lay the 40-foot oak beams and posts and roof joist out on the ground, fasten them together with oak pegs, and then they would be raised.

It is said that a dance was held in the barn when it was finally completed, with the whole community invited.

When my father had extensive restoration done on that barn in the early 1990s, he had the slate roof replaced, as the weight of that slate was causing the structure to bow.

In their time. One point that always strikes me when I see the inside of some of these enormous barns is how much more difficult everything would have been in the era in which they were built.

It goes without saying that the carpenters who built them were industrious, insightful, and brave to have accomplished the finished products that far too often are taken for granted.

It’s heartening to know that many, like John High, are not taking them for granted, and are stepping up to see that they are saved for future generations to enjoy.

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