2010-10-07 / News

Conanicut Grange Report

By Bob Sutton
The late Connecticut artist and author, Eric Sloane, spent much of his professional career painting early New England landscapes and writing about New England farm life.

In his book, “American Barns and Covered Bridges,” he writes, “It might be said that the early barn is the best example of American colonial architecture. Each old barn was born of American soil and fitted to an American landscape for specific American needs…and when the farmer built his barn, it was a symbol of a new [American] life.”

The raw material for early barns came from nearby fields and forests. Stones moved from the pastures and hay fields provided the barn foundation, and lumber for construction was cut from nearby forests and milled by the farmer with simple hand tools.

Nails and bolts were expensive and in short supply, so structural timbers were crafted with mortise and tenon joinery, and wooden pegs held the structural timbers together. This method of “post and beam” construction became the model for barn construction for the next 250 years and continues today, although now it is marketed to more upscale residential home builders.

If the topography allowed, barns were built into the side of a hill to allow at-grade access to both the first and second floors. Large farm animals, such as horses, cows, oxen, etc., typically occupied the bottom floor of the barn, while hay and grain for winter feed was stored on the second floor.

Where possible, barns were oriented with their doors facing south to minimize snow buildup and to provide winter solar warming for the animals and the farmer. Roofs were steep to shed the snow and rain, and to minimize leaks into the hay and grain stored inside.

Barn design was a testament to the very practical rule that “form follows function.” However, according to Eric Sloane, the lasting architectural appeal of these barns, “beauty without embellishment,” is no accident, but rather, a result of the simple design tools available to the farmer – compass, ruler, straight edge and a commitment to a mathematical symmetry that created design harmony.

As New England farming evolved through the first three centuries, the barns got bigger, but remained true to their original structure, architecture and practicality. In his book, “The Long Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England,” Howard Russell reports that by the start of the 20th century, the barn – although now probably shingled and painted – continued to “reflect characteristic adoption to climate and circumstances.”

Today, although still prominent and practical in Pennsylvania Amish country, these beautiful big barns have mostly disappeared from the New England landscape for several reasons.

As urban residential development pushed into the neighboring farmlands, the barns were considered useless structures and torn down. For the farmers remaining, the big old barns became impractical for modern agricultural use.

For example, new methods of hay production – large round bales weighing more than 1,000 pounds – have made hay storage on the second floor of a barn impossible, tractors and modern farm equipment do not fit into spaces originally designed for horses and much smaller horsedrawn equipment, and modern milking techniques and milking equipment are not compatible with the space originally designed for a farmer and his helper to milk cows by hand.

Finally, timber beams and the large scale of the structural elements of the old barns are expensive and difficult to alter or repair – and only marginally useful even then. Farmers working with very limited resources cannot readily afford the cost of such alteration and repair, and old barns are often neglected and allowed to deteriorate as the farmer’s money is invested in more functional modern farm buildings.

In Jamestown, several farms still use and maintain old-style timber-frame barns. Watson Farm, Fox Hill Farm, Beaverhead Farm, Dutra Farm, Hodgkiss Farm and Windmist Farm all have barns that date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. So, the next time you stop by one of the farms to pick up some hay, eggs, meat or vegetables, take note of the barns. These buildings are examples of not only our agricultural past, but also provide meaningful testimony of our ancestor farmers’ contribution to American architectural history.

Out standing in the field

In this issue of the Jamestown Press, you will notice a fundraiser letter for the Jamestown Community Farm. The Community Farm is raising money for a new barn that will be large enough to store and repair farm equipment, provide work space for farm chores and storage of harvested vegetables, honey, eggs, etc.

The barn was designed by Jamestown architect Jim Estes, with the same attention to weather, function and practicality exhibited by the first New England farmers. Hopefully, you can take some time to read the letter and, if the spirit moves you, make a donation to the project. From where we stand, it would be a great thing to see a new barn out standing in the Jamestown Community Farm field.

What’s available in

Jamestown:

Dutra Farm, hay, 662-5686.

Hodgkiss Farm, late summer vegetables at the stand, 423- 0641.

Watson Farm, grass-fed Red Devon Beef, lamb, Conanicut Island and Rhody Warm wool blankets, North Main Road, Thursdays, 3 to 6 p.m.

Windmist Farm, Grass-fed beef products, eggs, Weeden Lane, Fridays, 3 to 6 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Casey Farmers Market: Saturday mornings.

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