1830s "Temperance Barn"
This article by Don Perkins is a good overview of our Maine barns; it appeared in the Portland Press Herald, Oct. 22, 2008.
Rich with history, barns are iconic pieces of our rural landscape. An early 19th-century barn in South Bridgton stands as a fine example of a "New England Barn," a type still found in good numbers throughout Maine. Owned by the Bridgton Historical Society, "The Temperance Barn," is so named because the traditional barrel of rum was absent at its raising. The structure is off the beaten path and part of the society’s "Narramissic" farmstead--a native American word meaning "hard to find."
The Bridgton Historical Society is in the midst of its "Raise the Roof" campaign to replace the roof on the early 1830’s structure. Ned Allen, society president, said the current asphalt-shingled roof dates to the 1960s; they’re nearly halfway toward their $30,000 goal.
"We have a grant from the Anna and Kendall Ham Charitable Foundation," said Allen. "They fund projects in the Bridgton and North Conway areas."
As any barn and homeowner knows, a good roof is the front lines in preserving old structures. This barn went through some structural renovations when the society acquired the property in the 1980s and stands in relatively good condition today.
Barns are certainly historic buildings. The word "barn" comes from the combination of the words "barley" and "place." It's an old English word essentially meaning a place where one stores barley. It’s why the words barn and barley share a common spelling.
Contrary to first assumption, our barns are not simple farm buildings. They went through quite an evolution in their journey from civic agricultural buildings full of grain, to later housing livestock and fodder for individual farms during winter.
In fact, it is said you will not find barns outside of the European settled areas of the world. A winter landscape is common to much of Europe, a population that traditionally farmed in a set location that needed to protect farm animals and harvests from the elements. Europeans were not nomadic.
Barns here in New England, especially in southern Maine, are direct carryovers from English ancestry.
The Peabodys started the farm here off of Ingalls Road in South Bridgton in 1797. They were an English family arriving from Massachusetts. They, as well as other leading families in early Bridgton, had ties to Portland’s prosperous shipping center. However, the Temperance Barn here today was built by the next generation, the Fitch family, in the early 1830s.
The barn is comprised of a hand-hewn frame, the pieces of which were no doubt processed with axes directly on-site. Generally, most barns found in our area dating before the Civil War are comprised of hand-hewn frames. Standardized, sawn timber became increasingly available as the railroads linked the nation. But barn builders still had to weigh the cost of purchasing sawn timbers against the labor of providing their own directly from the forest.
A local mill usually sawed boards for early buildings, and the Temperance Barn is no exception. The barn is clad with cedar shingles today, but the original siding would have been the very boarding itself. Nails were expensive items and siding used plenty of them. Early barns such as this have wall boards applied vertically. This economic approach does not require extra wall studding and vertical boards naturally drain water. However the boards were typically put on fresh, or green, and the resulting shrinkage left a barn pretty drafty. Some barn owners got around this by installing battens, either interior or exterior, over the joints. But the Temperance barn is unique: the boards—measuring 18 to 20 inches wide and attached with old square cut nails—are tongue-and-grooved. This is unusual for the period; such a labor-intensive detail would have been fashioned by hand with a special cutting plane. It speaks to the prominence of the early families who lived here.
The style of this barn, which measures 40-by-60 feet, is what's technically referred to as a "New England Barn." Its main entry doors are on each gable end, with a center aisle running the entire length of the building. As its name indicates, this style came about after the English had lived here a few generations. "English Barns" were smaller in size and had the main entrance doors along an eaves wall. The buildings were often used for threshing wheat and the farmer liked the wind to blow through the shortest dimension of the building for this operation. In fact, the term "threshold" is taken directly from barn history. The threshold was an actual board that “held” the heavier wheat that fell to the floor while the wind carried the lighter chaff away.
When the English settlers came here to New England raising livestock became increasingly popular. Before dairy came on the scene in a big way, sheep were the common animal raised. Raising larger and greater numbers of animals, and the harsh winters, soon illuminated the shortcomings of their traditional English barn design.
The English barns had large swinging doors directly below the roofline. Opening these big doors in winter required a lot of snow shoveling, and a short aisle running across the barn made it difficult to service all areas of the structure with a wagon. Therefore, the New England design eventually employed a sliding door--thought to be borrowed from railroad cars--and located them at a the gable ends, away from depositing rain and snow. A long center aisle allowed a horse and wagon to enter at one end and service the entire building before exiting out the other.
But the English were not about to revise their timber framing methods, an art that had been refined since the medieval period. The Temperance Barn has flared or "gunstock posts" that meet wall plate and major rafters at a junction typically referred to as an "English tying joint," so named because it tied the roof and walls together in a very effective manner.
These posts taper ever wider toward the top of the wall in order to provide extra wood for the intersecting joinery of the tying joint. Typically 8 inches square at the base, the posts in the Temperance barn measure 8-by-12 inches at the top. Barn builders took advantage of the natural taper in a tree when hewing these posts. The wider butt-end of the tree would be inverted to naturally facilitate the taper at the post’s top.
At each joint you can see the carpenter’s Roman numerals or "marriage marks" where one timber joins another. This custom fitting of joinery was the way it had to be done with the uneven nature of hand-hewn timber. Builders take it for granted today that they can buy a load of smooth standardized lumber. Hand-hewn timbers not only varied in size, but weren't particularly square to begin with. Thus the carpenter had to literally scribe the joint locations onto the wood.
Thanks to quality craftsmanship and old-growth lumber, the Temperance Barn should last for decades to come with a new roof in place. Indeed, in England, there are many barns built this way that stand having passed the 500-year mark. With care, some of our New England barns will no doubt surprise us in their longevity.