It's a great day to tear down a building. A mild 72 degrees, low humidity, blue skies.
I'm sitting under our big maple and watching the demolition of our old, beloved, barn.
We bought our home in 1981. It was built in 1948 and I guess the barn was added soon afterward. It's a small functional building, 30' x 24', with a Quonset-style roof. The ground floor has divisions for what we've come to know as the machine shed side, the tack room, and the animal side. Up the worn wooden steps, through a trap door, to the second floor, the hayloft soars about 20' high at its peak. It's always felt like a sort of cathedral to me. The skeleton of the loft is created by an amazing series of short boards that have slightly curved sides. All very handmade. I can't imagine how it was constructed, because there's no support beam for the peak.
The previous owner kept horses and cows. There were still stanchions inside the barn when we moved in. Over the years since 1981, the place has sheltered three horses, two goats, two ducks, and innumerable chickens.
The loft full of hay became a playground for our sons, Charlie and Brian. The big loose pile of hay made a great trampoline. Someone hung a swing from the peak, and the boys and their friends went swinging in a wide arc before sailing into the hay. When they got older, they "decorated" the loft with old carpeting and furniture they found on people's garbage piles. What used to be a haymow
became a place for hanging out.
Our daughter Anna had a swimming party in sixth grade. Part of the fun was a mighty girls vs. boys war. Their prize was the hayloft. Their weapons were water balloons. The kids took turns jumping out of the hayloft door onto the grass outside.
The ground floor of the barn was constructed with cinder blocks. There was a cement floor on the machine shed side, earth on the animal side, but no foundation. Thus during the past 33 years, the barn has been a-movin'. (Before-and-after pictures are posted below...with more to come!)
Even back in 1981, we knew that the barn needed repair.
Year by year, we watched it slowly deteriorate. The cinder blocks stuck out like crooked teeth. After every winter's frost heave, they jutted out more treacherously. The walls leaned and sagged here at there. And yet the old edifice kept standing, with the roofline fairly true. In the late 1980s, a carpenter friend of ours came by to look the building over. He had grown up on a farm in Indiana. He said, "I've seen a lot of barns that were in this kind of shape. They can last for 50 years. What really kills a barn is a bad roof, because it lets in rain and snow and the whole building rots."
So we re-shingled the most battered side of the roof, the west side.
Then my husband, Mike, and I found out about Barns N.O.W.! (Barns Network Of Wisconsin). Together, we attended a Barns N.O.W.! conference. This is what we learned:
* There are thorny problems with barn foundations.
* There are many different ways to fix them.
* Wood barns are historic buildings that speak of the old ways. Except for the Amish, most people aren't building wood barns anymore.
* Many people believe that if possible, wood barns should be saved.
* Depending upon the age and intended use of a barn, there is some grant money available for saving and restoring it.
We got fired up at the Barns N.O.W.! conference. But as the months wore on afterward, Mike and I figured we lacked the know-how to do the job ourselves, and we also lacked the money to pay someone to do the job.
And so we watched the barn deteriorate for more years. Everyone who visited had an opinion on how to fix it. All the opinions were different: Dig down and make a good foundation.... Use pole barn construction.... Make it like a house with boards down to the ground.... Try filling barrels with concrete at each corner....
It was enough to make my head spin.
Finally, last fall, our insurance company did a routine walk-through of our property. Their conclusion was "Fix the barn, or tear it down, or we'll drop your coverage."
The structure had become more than what insurance agents call an "attractive nuisance." It had become a danger.
We shored up the barn with jacks before winter, and talked about what to do.
Then I happened to do some website copy writing for Harmony Pole Buildings.
Hmmm....that pole barn idea again...I thought pole barn construction might work to save our barn, with a little creativity.
I contacted Jim McBride, the owner of Harmony Pole Buildings. He came to look over our barn. Like everyone, he admired the architecture of the hayloft. Finally he said sure, we could turn the structure into a pole barn.
We decided to save only the hay loft, the part of the barn that is really magnificent. We'll save considerable money that way. We don't keep animals anymore, so we don't need the bottom part. We'll keep the hayloft with its wooden floor (sitting on a ground-level foundation shored up by poles) as a Quonset hut for storing our lawn tractor and supplies. We did the math - to tear down the barn and build a new pole building, the cost would be more than refurbishing our barn.
So...we took out a loan (ouch) and started the process. First step was cleaning out the barn. What a job! Even though I had got rid of all the old furniture years ago, there was still a motley assortment of things we just couldn't part with. We parted with them now.
Mike and I, with the help of our nephew Chris and the neighbor boys, expended about 40 worker hours lifting, dragging, sorting, and piling. Some of the more precious stuff went to the side of the road out front: inkwell school desks, a plastic wheelbarrow missing one wheel, a basketball hoop, cross-country skis with one shoe, two 1940s suitcases, a home-made dog cage, old wooden windows, a picnic table umbrella, an old motor, and more. The treasures
disappeared within 24 hours at our free roadside rummage.
As I worked in the barn, I gradually discerned a familiar smell: the scent of animals. It's hard to describe if you haven't had livestock. Some people might assume it's an obnoxious odor, but it's more homey than repugnant.
As I dragged and moved things, memories floated back. I remembered when we had the horses. We didn't own them, just boarded them for the guy who did. But it didn't matter who owned them; we lived with them. Alice Walker wrote, "Horses make a landscape more beautiful" - I always felt like that. I loved the way they ran, free, and the way they whinnied for each other when we took them out riding. Sometimes at night I'd go outside and spend time with the huge beasts before I went to bed. I liked to look up at them in the moonlight. All was silent except for their breath, especially in winter. All I'd see was the great velvet nose, with the horse whiskers, and those two eyes on each side of the horse's head. Those eyes could never look at you both at the same time.
We moved old ladders out of the barn, and I remembered how, after the horse era, our chickens perched on them each night, in their particular chicken order. They were funny creatures that were entertaining to watch, and they gave us delicious eggs. Our daughter, Anna, named them and we had to stop butchering them cuz she said so. They lived to happy old age.
The smell was always comforting to me: the scent of animal flesh plus manure plus hay...it smelled of life.
I'm sad to lose the bottom part of the barn. Most of all, I'm sad to admit that we never plan to have livestock again. I dreamed of raising alpacas and selling their fleece. But you have to stay home if you have farm animals. When we bought a trailer on Little Green Lake, we began spending every weekend there during good weather. I don't want to stay home all the time.
The barn is becoming a utility shed. It's the start of a new era. I'm proud that we're saving the beautiful Quonset loft part of our barn. But I'm sad that our little farm is becoming less of a farm.
Here is a photo diary of the project:
|A shot showing the messed-up cinder blocks.|
|Side shot shows cinder blocks|
|Looking from the tack room to the animal side|
|Where our chickies hung out|
|Where the hens left their eggs|
|Beginning the cribbing|
|Some cribbing inside the barn|
|You can start looking right through the barn.|
|The loft is supported by two beams that sit on cribs. Demolition on the lower part.|
|The two beams on cribs. Back wall of barn is already gone.|
|Demolition of the side wall|
|Not much left of the walls|
|Walls gone, barn is lowered by a hydraulic jacks at each corner|
|Barn is now sliding backward - look at position of white car.|