Marcia D’Alcorn loves many things — and right at the top of the list are her husband and family, local history, her horses and her barn.
“My L-shaped barn is on Laketon Avenue in Ravenna,” she says with a smile, pouring out positive energy as she speaks. “We think part of it could have been built around 1900 as a company barn to house draft horses for the Foster Winchester Co. sawmill on Crockery Creek in Slocum, 3 miles northeast of Ravenna, Mich. And it might be that part of it was built in the early 1940s by Levi Conklin, who sold it as part of 200 acres to my parents, Richard and Maxine Spink, in 1952.”
D’Alcorn isn’t certain about these dates; but someone who is an expert in barn construction could very likely narrow the possibilities based on a number of factors, including hand-hewing, patterns of sawblade cuts in the timbers from saws that came into use at varying points in the early 1900s, and the architecture itself.
She has been doing some super-sleuthing about the barn’s origins, intrigued by the idea that it may have played a role in local history after Giles Slocum built his sawmill in 1865 at the end of the Civil War. The area was platted in 1888, with Slocum acquiring more than 4,000 acres as payment for helping to build roads and bridges as Michigan developed. More than 155 years old, the portion owned today by D’Alcorn and her husband, David, has had five owners: Giles Slocum, Giles’ son Elliott Slocum, Giles’ grandson Elliott Nichols, Levi Conklin — and most recently Marcia’s family.
Barn built to fit needs
The barn is one of five in the area D’Alcorn has identified that have a similar look. It’s a common situation across the country where in any given region, construction styles were defined by the type of farming or ranching, construction materials available and weather conditions, as well as ethnic influences. The skills and preferences of the local barn builder also factored into the design.
“When my parents acquired the barn,” D’Alcorn recalls, “It had at least 20 stanchions for milk cows, three horse stalls, a large haymow over the dairy section and more hay storage on the main floor near the horse stalls.”
Twenty head of milk cattle was a good number for family farms in the 1940s, with herds and prosperity growing steadily for several years. But by the 1960s and into the ’70s, family farms began to face political and economic challenges. Requirements like separate milk houses (the Spink milk house was built in 1955) and the technology of gutter cleaners, conveyor systems, concrete alleyways and bulk tanks meant barns needed to be adapted or abandoned. As small farms were swallowed up by bigger operations, traditional barns were abandoned to literally fall by the wayside.
“My dad held down a full-time job in Grand Rapids while milking cows twice a day from 1952 to 1961,” D’Alcorn recalls. Farm families supplementing their income with off-farm work to hold onto the lifestyle they love was — and remains — a common practice to this day.
In 1961, the family’s dairy cows were sold to avoid the expense of having to install a bulk tank, one of many new requirements to meet government standards. Until then, milk had been put in cans and kept in a cold-water tank until they were picked up by the milk truck. “We had a few beef cattle after that,” she recalls. “Mom and I always had horses to ride, and I showed in 4-H. My favorite thing was to lay on my cow Alice’s back while Dad did the milking,” D’Alcorn says. “One winter in the early 1970s, we fed 6,000 square bales to 34 beef cattle and 13 horses.” She adds, with delight, “And what barn doesn’t have a rope to swing on in the mow, and hay for forts when city cousins come over for sleepovers?”
Adapted for other animals
“In the 1980s, my brother, Bruce, removed the stanchions, leveled the dairy barn floor and put in a bunk feeder along the long northeast wall to better accommodate beef cattle and horses,” D’Alcorn adds. “The tie horse stalls were removed, and the area expanded to six 12-by-12-foot box stalls. The milk house now serves as a tack, feed and tool room.”
Care and keeping of the barn continued with a new roof installed in 2011, along with minor foundation repairs. Two hay mow joists were shored up with 2-by-12-foot raw oak beams bolted into place. Two cables were installed in the hay mow at the top plates to pull a bowed roof into alignment. One cable had been installed in 1970 but could no longer be counted on for stability.
The barn is home to Marcia’s two elderly horses, Joe and River, who enjoying the good life — out to pasture or in the barn, as they choose.
“The best advice I can give anyone is to keep a good roof on your barn, and if possible, install gutters to protect the foundation,” D’Alcorn says with certainty. “Do repairs when the task is small to avoid bigger issues later. And most importantly, hire the best — whether it is a builder, an engineer or a contractor. Spend the money to do it right the first time. You won’t regret it.”
Arnett is co-founder of the Barn Believers Community Project Fund, held with the Battle Creek Community Foundation. She is also the author of “American Barns.” Arnett, who writes from Battle Creek, Mich., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.