We recently bought an old barn from a site in Onslow, Iowa, had it dismantled and moved, and are resurrecting it on our farm, an idea that sounded somehow simple and quaint when we looked into it some months back. Reusing the wood would be ecologically sound, we reasoned, and since the posts and braces already existed, well, we would likely save some money in the construction costs. (Laughing emoji with the tears coming out of its eyes goes here).
The old timber arrived via semi marked with a letter and number, and stacked into piles. The stacks lay quietly in our yard for weeks, the 100+-year-old wood almost as strong and vibrant as the day it was milled, another 100 years of holding up a building still left in her fibers.
Thankfully, we simultaneously found Jason, a post and beam specialist who has been rebuilding such barns for years and could make sense of the lot. He knew how to decipher the numbers on each log, how to break the code as to where in the building each timber belonged, how the holes in one tenon would line up just so with the mortices in another, making the joints strong, even before wood pegs and metal screws were added.
Most revamped barns, Jason explained to us early on, are turned into uninsulated “party barns” to hold staged farm weddings or for use as a mancave shop. Ours, on the other hand, will be a two-bedroom barn-house, with a kitchen and space downstairs for holding small classes and events. But a house = insulation, which means we need to in effect build a new barn around the old barn so that the insulation can sit behind the old rafters and roof boards. Someone inside the structure will enjoy the old post and beam structure, while outside the barn will keep them warm and dry.
John took the opportunity to spend days going around the farm looking for dead-standing wood that he could mill because isn’t that what people do in 2022 when they need wood for a project? Then the sawyer came with his mobile mill, paring tree trunks into 2x6s and 6x6s, filling our existing hay barn with freshly milled, rough-sawn lumber.
After Jason arrived, he spent a lot of time figuring out what was what in the wood pile, pulling out this piece and measuring that, washing the wood with the power washer and restacking it all into new piles. He then constructed the “bents,” as they are called, the five posts and beam structures that are the main frame of the building and run from south to north.
On Barn Raising day, the crane and a few family and friends arrived to help erect the new barnpartment. As luck would have it, the weather was stellar - the kind of day you might hope for and never get in Iowa in late November. But there it was, clear, bright, and crisp, with just enough nip in the air to remind you that you are alive. The day that we had been preparing for several months was finally upon us.
I hurried to the farm to check the cattle and the goats as John and our barn-raising crew prepared to stand the first bent. And just like that, slowly and methodically, the bents went up, one after another, until we had the skeleton of a barn standing.
In the days that followed we have added onto, and around, the timber frame. A crew helped raise the framing walls, and I ordered more windows than the local shop had ever seen.
But all through it, my belly has ached with anxiety about the building. Yes, it will be magnificent when completed, if not just wildly expensive and interesting looking. Yet if we build it, will they come? Will we be able to find people willing to come out to the barn, to enjoy it with us, and to pay for the experience?
How much marketing will I have to learn to do, and to whom will I direct it? How much of my time will it all take, and will I enjoy it? And how will this building fit into and compete with the things we already do on the farm, like take care of cattle and goats, and plant and harvest vegetables?
But even more acute is my concern for the future of the farm. We’ve made huge changes—raising our animals on pasture, rotating them every day, planting 100s of trees, and now, building a facility for folks to visit and learn about agriculture. In other words, it is too much for two 50-year-olds to do on their own.
What will become of this place in 10, 60, 100 years? I wonder aloud to anyone who will listen. Will it become the center for the community we hope it will be, or will it sit, vacant, left again to fend off the elements on its own? Will all we have done be in vain?