MOUNT VERNON, Ohio – You could say that Chuck Whitney’s career began before World War II, when he was a young boy helping on neighbors’ farms.
“Barns always intrigued farm boys – we scrambled around the barns, exploring and looking around,” he says.
“It’s the same thing I’m doing now.”
Whitney has made it his business to explore barns. Since 1999, he has visited more than 600 barns – and he has 150 more addresses waiting on his desk.
His goal is to help the owner of a barn with whatever project that person has in mind, usually to restore or sell the barn, but his work is part detective and part historian.
Expertise. Whitney’s newsletter, The Barn Consultant, could just as easily be named The Barn Guru.
His expertise goes beyond the logistics of recovering a deteriorating barn, beyond structural principles and building materials.
He was there when these barns were young, or being built. He grew up in these barns. That’s how he can do what might be the most important part of his job: to walk into a barn and see, right away, what makes it unique.
Something special. Mr. Whitney climbs into his red pickup and drives to one of his recent projects.
He estimates he’s traveled more than 300,000 miles in his work as a barn consultant, but luckily this site is only five minutes away.
It’s a smallish white barn with a bowed roof – to most, nothing special to look at.
He focuses his attention right away on the original siding and remaining timber framing, pointing out the saw kerfs on the beams.
He says they were cut with an up-and-down saw – dating the barn as pre-Civil War – and that the saw blade had been whipping a bit the day these beams were cut.
One can only pretend to understand how he knows this.
Chestnut sliver. After he has a talk with the men who are putting in the new driveway floor, he heads to the next barn. This one sits in the most unlikely of places, overlooking a Wal-Mart.
It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but Whitney’s straight manner of speaking betrays a hint of excitement.
Inside, he takes out his jackknife – “when you’re looking at barns, you always carry a jackknife,” he explains – and whittles a sliver off of a beam.
By looking at this exposed bit of wood, he can tell that the beam is American Chestnut – a species of tree that has been extinct for the better part of a century.
These huge swing beams, cut to be narrower at the ends than in the middle, are the mystery of the barn.
Every old barn has its mysteries, and Chuck Whitney has solved more than a few.
“I’ll show people things that they never noticed,” he says.
Experience. His insight comes largely from experience. He doesn’t move around as well as he used to, but since a great deal of the barns he looks at were built before the advent of the combine, his age works to his advantage.
“I have experienced all the changes in agriculture from the ’20s to today,” he says.
Farming changed dramatically with the coming of the combine in the 1930s and ’40s, and few who were around to experience farming before combines remember much about it, Whitney tells.
But he can: “I remember the ’20s very vividly: going out to the threshing machine, trading works, that kind of thing.”
Much of his technical experience comes from his previous work appraising houses, and much of his general knowledge about farming comes from years of work with farm equipment dealer associations.
Honed interest. It was in the mid-1990s that Whitney honed his interest in old barns.
He went to Barn Again meetings and barn-related events and began to see that for all farmers could be told about their barns, someone still had to “teach him to drive that nail into that wood.”
And so, Chuck Whitney took his show to the road, one thing led to another, and after six years he has visited barns in 10 states, from Mississippi to Michigan.
Barn lingo. Driving around Mount Vernon, Ohio, he starts talking barns. He tells about a barn he saw weeks before and how the repairs are going, about the siding that had been added.
“What they should’ve done,” he says, “is cut the top at an angle and caulk it.”
He talks about using pressure-treated wood in barns instead solid lumberyard timber.
He breaks out one of his characteristic “homespun” words: “I use the word ‘shlaisy.’ It means that it’s splintery, it isn’t very substantial wood, you see.”
Another visit. He pulls up to a shady farm that’s been driven past dozens of times but never noticed.
“I can almost say I haven’t been in a barn when I wasn’t invited,” Whitney says. “A few times I’ll go up to the house – like right now – and ask if I can take look.”
After a hospitable woman says yes, he can look at the old barn, Whitney shows why he came here.
The building is a log structure that was probably a house once but has functioned more like a barn later in its life. Whitney estimates it was built around 1800.
He gets out his jackknife and cuts off a sliver of one of the beams. “Beech. It’s heart wood. Red beech.”
He talks about the pine siding, how it would have come from Michigan, and about the latch on the door of one of the other buildings.
He takes a few pictures. As he pulls out of the driveway, a boy zips by on the farm’s golf cart, and Whitney jokes that he certainly wouldn’t be zipping around like that when he was a kid.
He would have been looking around his neighbors’ barns.