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Living history preserved in Vermont

TAGS: Buildings
Barn Spotlight: Barns find new life and are remnants of the region’s rich farming heritage.

New England’s barns, much like its farmers, are rugged, practical and shrinking in number. And though many barns have fallen into disrepair, others are being adapted for the future.

Much of Ed and Kelly Meacham’s dairy barn was built around 1890. Still, many of its features, designed when farmers relied on gravity and their own muscle instead of automation, are useful today.

Ed Meacham can drive sawdust up the high-drive ramp — or bridge — to the barn’s fourth floor. He dumps the sawdust through a hole, where it falls to the tiestall on the first floor. Round bales are driven for storage on the upper floors, too. 

“When they built it, they weren’t driving up with full wagonloads of hay, so it’s amazing it does what it does,” Ed says of the high-drive.

But the Meachams’ barn was in serious need of expensive repairs five years ago, and there was little money to keep it up.

Restoring an icon

The 100-by-44-foot yellow barn where the Meachams house and milk 90 head of dairy cows is a landmark, visible from Interstate 91. It has been pieced together over the years. An English-style ell, the earliest barn type in the region, was moved down the valley and attached to the main, bank-style barn. In the 1960s, a single-story barn was added for the milking herd.

The Meachams bought Lemax Farm in 1997 after living there four years. Previous owners razed some buildings, built the tiestall and, in 1985, replaced the milking parlor and milk room.

“That was the last real change to the barns,” Ed says. The Meachams tore down three upright wooden silos when they went to bunker silos and added mats and fans inside, but otherwise things have changed little.

Like many old barns, the Meachams’ is expensive and difficult to maintain, especially at a time of low milk prices. But so beloved is this iconic structure in Hartland, Vt., that the neighbors rallied to save it.

About five years ago, Kelly’s colleagues at the local elementary school offered to help paint the barn. Great idea, but painting made no sense without fixing the barn up first, and renovating it would take lots of money.

The state’s Barn Preservation Grant Program established nearly 30 years ago has helped many property owners maintain their historic barns. But matching funds are required, money the Meachams didn’t have.
There were some who said, "Just burn it down."

“But they didn’t want to do that,” says Matt Dunne, a Hartland resident. “They love the barn. They love the history and the iconography.

“The farm is the gateway to the town of Hartland from the north and a very successful river-bottom farm for a long time,” says Dunne, one of many locals who used bake sales, auctions and a Kickstarter campaign to raise $16,000 for matching funds.

Since then, they have received three rounds of funding from the Barn Preservation Program. Through donations, grants and their own money, the Meachams put about $200,000 into the barn renovation.

They replaced and repaired sills, joists and purlins in several parts of the barn; rebuilt the 22-foot-long high-drive bridge; replaced clapboards on the east wall; and painted the barn. Also underway is work on the shop barn, a late-18th century building that might have been a horse barn, and raising the structure to add a concrete slab and putting in new sills.

What can you afford?

Farmers such as the Meachams incorporate features of old barns into current operations. Others undertake major renovations that leave few of the original features in place.

Chris Callahan, University of Vermont Extension agricultural engineer, is often called into projects to repurpose old barns.

“Like most things, it comes down to cost,” Callahan says. “Some of the worst conversations I have had have been with people who have purchased a property thinking the barns are a great asset, but then realize they are structurally failing and a financial liability.

"They can be fixed, but at what cost? And should they be fixed using traditional methods or modern methods? These are very personal decisions that depend on the nature of the business or household and their sensitivity to history and capital investment.”

The changing New England barn

Over the years, barn uses have evolved in response to shifting agricultural use — from diversified farming, when they mostly housed horses and oxen, to specializing in sheep and then dairy. Lately, barns in New England have been adapted to production of small fruits, vegetables and specialty crops such as hemp.

But mostly they’ve changed in response to mechanization. As producers have been able to do more with machinery, they’ve relied less on gravity and human power.

The earliest New England barns, built by settlers from England and called “English-style,” were small with low-pitched roofs, says John Porter, a retired University of New Hampshire Extension specialist who wrote the book “Preserving Old Barns.”

“Then they made use of gravity to be more efficient — bank barns with drive-in basements to handle manure and high-drives to pitch down hay into the hay mows," Porter says.  

Livestock often were housed on the second floor, and manure was dropped to the basement for removal. Later, with better ventilation, animals were moved to ground floors.

With the advent of the railroad, producers could ship perishable milk longer distances and built larger barns to accommodate more cows, says Jan Lewandoski, a preservation expert who consulted on the restoration of the Meacham barn.

As young New Englanders left for the West and the Civil War took many others, farmers were desperate for labor efficiency. They acquired more machinery, eliminated smaller structures and consolidated into one, big barn.

Wood floors decayed from urine and broke down from the weight of larger hay bales and equipment.

“So then health regulations had a big impact,” Porter says. “Cows had to be milked on a ‘cleanable, impervious surface.’ Only concrete met that definition, and second-floor wooden stables moved to the basement with concrete. … As milk pipelines and gutter cleaners, which operate in a circle, came into use, cows had to be housed in two rows, tail-to-tail or head-to-head.”

Seeking more labor efficiency, producers started building freestall barns, and today, they often build to accommodate robotic milkers.

From milk to veggies

Silas Doyle-Burr decided to retrofit the dairy barn after he took over The Last Resort Farm in Monkton, Vt., from his parents four years ago. They started raising organic vegetables after selling the cows in 1994, but the barn was uncomfortable and lacked good sanitation for washing and processing greens and other produce.

“It was definitely a tough decision,” Doyle-Burr says. “Building new for the long term would be better, but we did not have a good handle on what the long term would be. I wasn’t really ready to take on such a huge project. It made more sense to spend $60,000 and have it right now.”

Doyle-Burr removed the tiestalls, filled gutters with gravel and added perforated pipe for drainage. About half the barn was enclosed and insulated for a wash-and-pack area. He added five walk-in coolers, heat pumps and a frost-free water hydrant, and adapted other sections of the barn for vegetable storage and winter housing for chickens.

The floor of the wash-and-pack area was sloped so water could flow into a drain. It has a dunk tank, barrel washer and a triple-bay sink for washing greens, along with a greens spinner. The milk room became a small retail area.

The old dairy barn has its downsides: Rodents and pigeons live in the hayloft and are a problem. But now they can wash greens inside, meet produce safety standards and can extend the growing season.

“It makes sense for extended season because it’s much more enjoyable to wash and pack now,” Doyle-Burr says. “No one wanted to wash greens in December.”

Is he sorry to see the old dairy barn being used for something else?

“I think that’s something more of a factor for my parents,” he says. “I grew up with the barn — where the loading dock is now was a slab for manure, and we played basketball there. But I don’t have too strong an attachment to it. More cost-efficient is more important, and utilizing the space. For every farmer, that’s a continuing question as scale increases.”

Harlow writes from Vermont.

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