Two Men in a Barn

A few weeks ago I spent some time one morning standing around with two men in a very large and very old barn, we three trying to solve a problem. If we’d had them we’d have been thoughtfully pulling on our beards. The barn is a landmark here in Plainfield, and it happens to live down the road from where I do. It is, unfortunately, showing signs of age even more significantly than I do. But then it is also quite a bit older. Until recently it stood proudly, if supported by braces on one side at the brow of a hill for close to two hundred years, by my best guess.

Guyette Barn with
Guyette Barn with “ell” addition (now removed and stored)

This past winter has not been kind to this barn. One gable end is, in a marine term Melville liked to use, “stove in,” and the big doors in the north wall have developed a large wobble that doesn’t bode well for the plate from which they hang. And people have been taking notice. Ever since the snow went, there’s been whispering, “did you see what the Guyette barn looks like?”

The barn is held, along with the farm on which it stands, in conservation by the Franklin Land Trust, and one of the men was one of their people. The other was a townsman of mine, a traditional post and beam builder and rescuer of barns. I crashed this party because I am the curator of the Plainfield Historical Society and as such the barn, being a Plainfield antiquity, falls under my protective wing in a manner of speaking. But really I was there because like to butt into things and I thought it wasn’t only about what to do about the barn technically, but also what to say about the barn that matters a lot. Plus I’d never been inside. Not that I am curious or anything like that.

The news wasn’t good. Even if the walls were stove in by nothing more serious than snow and ice pushed up by the road crew, which is how I had been reassuring myself for a couple of months, the larger story is that, despite the braces, the barn continues to slide off its foundation as it has been for years. Plus, and this is the new and very disconcerting part, the very complex joints at the top of the large flaring (“gunstocked”) posts are breaking apart: the posts and walls are falling away from under the roof. Truly, barns do rely on gravity to hold together—without ground under its feet, this barn is doomed.

Joinery in Guyette barn
Joinery in Guyette barn

We stood just a few feet inside, I don’t think Mr. Land Trust wanted us in very far which was fine with me, and he and Mr. Barn Guy agreed that something needs to be done this year if this venerable edifice is to be saved. We talked for an hour and a half about what and how to make that work, since we neither have any money to speak of nor a sugar mommy or daddy who happens to like venerable barns. One option is to wrap the barn and tie it to itself, lift it up, put a new foundation under it, and let it back down. If you then make sure the rain don’t get in you have bought some time. It would cost a mere 100K to do that, the two men thought.

That gave us all sticker shock and soon another solution started to emerge, one that I wasn’t all that happy about because it involves the disappearance of this barn from the landscape – whether for good or not is unknowable—I would hope not. Mr. Barn Guy would first document and then carefully take down the barn, the Land Trust would store it in containers or trailers and clean up the site. Then we’d take a deep breath and start going about raising money to put it back up.

Two things. One: that’s the fifty-thousand dollar solution. That money isn’t lying around either. Two: why? Why save a barn? Why save this barn? We gots lots of barns here in the hilltowns, and they fall down all the time. It’s going to cost another 200 grand to put this thing up after it’s down. What for? What do we get out of that? Who is going to pay for that? The Land Trust has tried pretty hard and so far not been able to make more happen than take small steps to keep the barn from falling down. Which is what caused the whole problem in the first place. So, why? Not to mention how? Or now?

This is where I come in – with the why. Not I, AgathaO, but I, keeper of sorts of small pieces of Plainfield history. I promised the two men that I would make a list of reasons why it is worthwhile to think about saving this barn, out of all possible barns.

Seelye BArn
Seelye barn in 2010– now gone

(I)Why not this one? You may not agree with me here, but I think you’d want to save some barns if you happen to love this landscape like I do and many do. The houses aren’t enough to make the look, even though all of the attention is usually paid to them – barns are the history of work, industry, and they are plain gorgeous. Some five years ago a friend and I created a calendar, Plainfield Barns 2010. The back page, as an index of sorts, has pictures of 23 old barns in Plainfield some big and some small — of which I took a census this week: Gone – 3; gone within a year or two – 4; significantly being taken care of – 5. Quite rickety and with uncertain future – the rest (11).

My great aha-moment, which I had only very recently, is that I suddenly saw that our embarrassment of riches in the way of barns is make-believe, that we may very well be embarrassed for barns in the opposite way before the decade is out, because we let the moment get away. Soon it will be too late to pick a barn to save.

We need to make a move now as a community and make sure some barns are there for the folks after us. Every passing year, the price tag for it is getting higher. This is barn is available for saving now: miss the opportunity and what barn is going to be ready for ye next year, Plainfield and the other hill towns?

(II) This barn is going to be open to the public as a barn about a barn. Of the 22 other barns, one is open to the public once in a while, most often when we in Plainfield converge upon it to drop off goods, or en masse beat the opening bell of the LBS sale every summer. The sale is a very appropriate use: that barn has been a place for storage for much of its life. The Guyette barn, when restored, will be open to the public much of the time, because it will be a barn about a working barn: A barn that not only explains barns, barn building, the history of barns and what they are for, but also the history of this particular barn, farm, and twentieth-century farm family that made a living off the land using it for cows, hay, the works.

Scythes in the Guyette Barn. Courtesy of the Franklin Land Trust
Tools in the Guyette Barn. Courtesy of the Franklin Land Trust

When it was cleaned out, the Guyette Barn yielded barn tools that have been carefully stored: tools and machinery dating back to the nineteenth century, items that were used on this farm. Curators and art collectors call that provenance (we know who owned it and what they used it for) and what we have here is even what archaeologists call provenience: we know where it came from, it was found in situ. P and P make the interpretive value of any artifact.

Take a cultivator: okay, it’s a cultivator, every town history museum has a cultivator. It may have been made in Greenfield and say so on it. That makes it sort of local and is cool in Greenfield but what about Plainfield? Now take a cultivator that was in the barn and used on the Guyette farm: it was perhaps used to sow cauliflowers that were sold at market of which we have photos and Evelyn Guyette’s diary where she records how much she got for them from Serio’s in Northampton. Now you have a story to tell.

And all of that will at one point or another be available to all of us and our children and friends and grandchildren (whose kiddie Oxford dictionaries as of this year do not include the word ‘acorn.’) but only if we save this barn. If we don’t, the artifacts and information will still be there, of course, and we might get up an exhibit once every 10-15 years to show some of it in the library or at the Shaw Hudson House. Do you feel the difference?

(III) This barn is a work of art among barns. First, it is an old barn and held together with so-called “English tying joints” which are so called because they date back to fifteenth-century England and they hold the whole kit and caboodle together. Those are five-way joints and so big they need flared “gunstocked” posts (upside-down trees) to accommodate all the intersections at the top of a major post. The art of creating these joints actually waned after the turn of the nineteenth century, and Mr. Barn Guy dates this barn to the 1790’s, tentatively.

HampshireCounty  Registry of Deeds Book 8 page 66: Ebenezer Snel to Joseph Gloyd, 11/22/1788 (registered February 10, 1794)
HampshireCounty Registry of Deeds Book 8 page 66: Ebenezer Snel to Joseph Gloyd, 11/22/1788 (registered February 10, 1794)

However it likely was not built but moved here, at east that’s what rumor tells us, by my best guess in the first quarter of the nineteenth century when Joseph Gloyd who bought the land for this farm in 1788 for 101 (Massachusetts?) Pound 6 shilling, built a house next to his own for his son Joseph, Jr. Certainly Sr. already had a barn, which is also still standing and full of the same joints, but I would put that one on the endangered list also, unfortunately. Since Mr. Barn Guy is examining the barn closely, I hope to know soon whether the barn was built here or moved, and if so in the 1830’s, 1930’s or somewhere in between. I’m hoping he’ll compare the joints in those two barns and establish authorship. Opinions vary and I’ll keep you posted on my inquiries.

Guyette barn by Pleun.JPG - Version 2But the barn’s antiquity is not the only or perhaps even the main reason why it is such a special work of art. The barn sits on a protected farm, and you could not have located it better if you tried. Marred only slightly by its supporting braces, it sits proudly on the brow of the hill, displaying itself for all to admire. The Guyette farm and the surrounding landscape are a naïve painting: a hilly horizon of flowing hills in the distance, the foreground crisscrossed by stone walls that separate green fields dotted with decorative sheep from the apple orchard and the gardens. A small byway leads diagonally across. Near but not at the top of the hill stands the barn anchoring the entire scene, holding us fast in silent testimony to and insistence on the hands that harnessed these forests with a will to survive, and left us with a country.

Guyette field by PleunFor the barn is also nestled in the landscape in New England fashion, pointing the way this and that, down the hill to the mill in the stream that employed the farmer and his sons at peak water season, whence likely the boards that clad the barn but also broom handles and many other items that brought the so-necessary cash. The barn pointing up the road to the neighboring houses and past them to the small graveyard were they lie, the first farmers and their wives and children, their stones witness to this day to the opinions and orneriness and godliness of the folk that made land into a farm. And past that to the town whence the farmer’s bi-weekly trek to John Mack’s store to buy and sell most likely and the church.

And all of them teach us still, today, if we have an opportunity to notice it, of the effort to survive, to make a working economy and a viable society of people and what they had to do to make it work. And the barn is an opportunity for us to stop and take notice.

(IV) The Barn will be headquarters to community efforts and an expanding network of trails in the now-forested landscape. To learn about the world around us, we most often go for a walk , a hike, a tour. We visit a cemetery, hunt around for cellar holes, go botanizing, walk from an eighteenth-century farm across hill and dale to an eighteenth-century mill two ridges over, noting that the people who built these knew each other. And along the way we find woodcock, bears, perched wetlands, traces of old-growth forest, newly forested lands, streams that run like crazy in the spring and jingle lazily to beg us to dip in on hazy summer afternoons. We learn, we explore, we play, and we become happier and healthier as a result. With the Land Trust’s Guyette Farm Trail, the Historical Society’s Farming in Stone self guided tour, one hopes soon an expanded historic district, and a projected trail across the ridges to the Plainfield Historical Society’s Mill Site, the barn holds the landscape together like an English Tying Joint: in five ways and as many directions. Not to mention the Strawberry Hill Community Farmers working towards providing provision to all. With a barn, there’s a place to start from, a place to anchor our experience.

What are ye waiting for?

8 thoughts on “Two Men in a Barn

  1. I want the barn to live on! Thanks for this beautiful essay that helps all of us who are more tone deaf to the past than you understand the deep value of THE BARN.

  2. Pleun: You did an absolutely wonderful job writing the piece about the barn not to mention the the nice pics. I think it will take many angels to save the barn, but one never knows. I do think ultimately it will have to be taken down in its entirety like the round barn at the Shaker Community in Hancock and re assembled.
    Wish I had an extra million or so.

  3. Beautifully presented, Pleun. I think about the ghosts of Evelyn and Harry, Evelyn using the air horn that her neighbor Joyce Freeland bought her to call Harry in from the fields when they were both in their 90s…I don’t care to lose those memories because they’re the lovely ghosts who built the beautiful place in which I live. And the work of their hands, that old barn for instance, anchors those memories.

  4. Thank you Annie, how true. I never met Harry, although I saw him at work many times. I met Evelyn once, when she was 98 or 99! But you are right, they built/maintained that barn with the work of their hands. As Rich Potter said: “if Harry was still here, that barn would not be failing as fast as it is, he’d have been shoring it up this way and that for the past decade. That’s how the farmers did it.” And that is, of course, why these barns still stand at all. You know you can contribute at the Land Trust, right? Just mark it for the barn in some way. Right now they are looking for money to pay for Rich to start the process of taking it down in earnest. I am incredibly sorry to see it go but it beats the alternatives. Other ways of supporting are to share this on fb and other ways. Thank you!

  5. Pleun, Your photos and words put passion into a problem…. telling a story that breathes life with all kinds of possibilities. Let’s talk Frances Henry into a repeat performance reading from her essays of Evelyn and Harry and ask Steve Wick to capture it on video for countless others to experience at their convenience. There’s the New England Grassroots Environment Fund and several on-line fund raising programs that we can consider, some with incentives that might spark fresh interest in this project. I’d be happy to help you with that part of the venture to raise the funds to pay for Rich’s immediate work. You’ve got the ball rolling. Now you and the FLT need help keeping it in motion. Time is of the essence as the barn slips downhill.

Tell me what you think!