Big on Barns (continued)

Bryant Homestead

While 18th- and early 19th-century English barns were built at a distance from farmhouses, by the mid-1800s farm journals were advocating that barns be built close – or even connected – to dwelling places, to concentrate activity.

A barn could also serve as a windbreak for a house. Connected complexes do appear, but more commonly farmers in the Highlands built their barns at right angles to their houses to create protected yards. It was also during this period that farmers began to apply architectural stylesto their barns, occasionally influenced by decorative elements on their houses.

Side-hill barns could be several stories high; to make the most of their height, builders constructed ramps or “high drives” into the upper story’s gable end, so that feed could be pitched to several floors of livestock below. Manure was dropped to the first level and removed through doors to the fields. Certainly, nowhere was gravity put to use with more economy than in these barns.

By the third quarter of the 19th century, the English barn from 150 years earlier was being revived for specialized use as a horse-and-carriage shelter, or as a small cow barn in residential areas. Termed “eaves-front” to distinguish them from earlier English barns, they may be seen today in many town centers of the Highlands region.

Many barns feature additions made to accommodate the ever-evolving processes farmers were adopting. One of the best examples of this type is the impressive red barn at The Trustees’ William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Cummington. The New England section was constructed in the 1840s using timbers from an earlier barn; the right wing was added in the 1860s; and the left wing built 30 years later.

Today, the greatest challenge to barn preservation is not keeping a barn’s roof intact; rather, it is keeping it intact over an economically viable use. Fortunately, there is a burgeoning movement of people and organizations determined to preserve as many as they can.

Mack Phinney’s connection to barns is both personal and professional: As a timber framer and blacksmith, he personifies trades rich in historical and community value; as a teacher, he passes along such semi-forgotten work traditions to a new generation; and as member of the Barn Task Force of Preservation Massachusetts, he defends them, from roof peak to manure pile.

“I’m definitely an ambassador for barns,” says Phinney, who guided a team of staff and volunteers in constructing a shed at The Trustees’ Copicut Woods in Fall River. “Our group’s objective is to preserve barns instead of tearing them down.”

He can speak of “English” and “New England” designs with authority and is awed by the skill and ingenuity of those barns’ original builders. “In the beginning, they didn’t even have sawmills, so they could only square up trees with axes, and use pegs made from wood,” Phinney marvels. “As time went by, sawmills cut timber into planks, but everything was still built with hand tools, no real machinery.”

A knowledge of mathematics and physics was also crucial, he says. “They had some ingenious levering arrangements. You could do a lot with manpower, ropes, animals – and intelligence.”

Barns certainly mean plenty to him. And he is as delighted as anyone at how they are being transformed.

In Shelburne, a barn complex serves as communal storage and a place for weddings, all of which helps maintain its value to the group of families who own it in common.

A barn in Tyringham also has been transformed into a rustic venue for weddings and other celebrations that bring rental income.

The Highlands are home to several barns that have been put to cultural uses. One of the most prominent is at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket. Another barn in Ashfield is home to the Double Edge Theater. Barns are large spaces than can be business-friendly as well; conversions include offices and work areas for a landscape architecture firm and a golf course clubhouse. In New Marlborough, a pair of barns has been converted into a hotel/spa.

Even if they have found new uses, there is a fundamental beauty to barns that goes beyond function, Phinney says. “Especially if they’re on land a family has owned for many years; if you know a barn’s history, you appreciate it more. Or if you’ve just bought a property with a barn on it, and do some research, it just means more,” he says.

Perhaps their ultimate worth, however, is found in the eye of each beholder. “I just think they’re fantastic,” Phinney says with a chuckle. “I slow down so much when I see one, I’m surprised I haven’t been tail-ended. I just have to look.”

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