I’ve been studying barns for a while now and am amazed by what I’ve learned and the colorful “barn people” I’ve met along the way. There’s a real richness in this topic, one I’m trying to capture in a future book on Maine’s barns.
The heart of any farm would have to be its barn. Maine still has many of these grand old structures; towering storehouses that were common to the childhoods of many Mainers.
Barns lead to all kinds of interesting spinoffs. Thankfully, there are still some active barns among us with long-standing farm families tied to them. And the “buy local” movement has helped breathe new life into neighborhood agriculture, helping to save some of these beloved structures.
A barn tour sponsored by the Windham Historical Society June 11 will visit four historic barns. Participants will get a crash-course in how to date a barn and what these different time periods represent. The sights and smells, the sound of a big rolling door, will no doubt trigger memories for many.
Who knew an ordinary old barn would be a doorway to our English roots? I always knew Maine was part of “New England,” but I never truly understood what this designation meant until beginning serious barn study.
From 1800 to 1840, close to 100 percent of Maine’s population claimed English Protestant decent. In southern and central Maine, our barn story truly begins in England where the oldest barn in the world still stands. The “Barley Barn” in Essex, England, dates to 1210. Here in the “New World,” some 500-600 years later, our early barns were built with the very same joinery.
As a former carpenter, I’d heard about mortise and tenon joints, posts and beams, but 13th century English carpentry is where it all began. It’s a fascinating topic. I discovered grand terms like “English Tying Joint,” “king posts,” “dragon beams” and “flying plates.”
Barns brought communities together and barn raisings are romantic efforts from our history. A barrel of rum was a time-honored fixture at nearly each and every barn-raising. But a barn in Bridgton broke tradition. The 1830s “Temperance Barn” is so named because the builders purposely skipped this part of the ritual.
A barn dance is another nostalgic event of old-time community spirit. Yet the true purpose of this exercise had a simple objective. Newly-sawn barn floorboards were often quite rough; corn husks or other material were put down and the dancing feet of eager patrons helped smooth the surface.
Another spoke in the wheel of barn study is the dairy industry. It’s safe to say that just about every barn in our area had a dairy cow in it at some point. After the “breadbasket” of our nation opened up, Maine farmers, with their short growing season and rocky soil, had to face they could no longer compete with Western farms.
But milk and butter found a steady market close to home. It’s no stretch to say it was the dairy industry that saved farming in Maine. And it gave us some of our biggest barns: the grand, late 19th century dairy barns with their rooftop cupolas were proud buildings.
Because of hard work and ever-present disease, an old text from the 1930s advised that those entering the commercial dairy field should possess a good physique and excellent health. Indeed, dairying commands long hours. There are no vacations. Cows must be milked twice a day, every day.
Ironically, this constant labor was touted as a positive for the times. While most crops are seasonal or weather-dependent, dairying provides stable work. Reportedly during the Great Depression, the number of employees at most dairy companies remained close to the number working at good times.
Jim Leary of Saco remembers milking at night in a barn on Route 1 during World War II outfitted with “blackout curtains.” Just like the visors on car headlights of the times, blackout curtains were necessary so an enemy submarine off the coast wouldn’t see the outline of any US ships against a lit-up shoreline. But the war-time milking went on.
Many recall huge barn fires. Bob Bartlett of Oxford was about 10 years old in 1941 when he awoke in the middle of the night.
“… 1941, I saw a barn burn,” he said. “My father woke me up at two o’clock in the morning, said the barn’s on fire. I got up and looked out the window. The barn was all ablaze, 86 feet long. We don’t know what started it … Oct. 20, 1941.”
Like many a Maine farmhouse, the home and barn were attached. Everything burned flat; their livestock was lost.
A lot of barns burned because of moist, loose hay, which is prone to spontaneous combustion. The composting action can create surprising heat; hay will ignite around 350 degrees.
Hay was the backbone of early agriculture and is why our barns grew to be so large. Hay fed the cows that produced beef and milk; it nourished sheep that produced wool.
Today, Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook goes through some 100 tons of hay a year. In the 1940s, when Roger Knight was just 8 years old, he remembers loading the family’s big, red 1915 barn high with hay. Children often worked on farms as soon as they were able.
Knight can recall the many barns that dotted County Road (Route 22) leading toward Scarborough from Portland in those days, a section now packed with industrial development, offices and a major cinema complex.
“There were at least 15 barns between Brooklawn Cemetery and North Scarborough on this road,” he says. “Many were good-sized barns.”
The barn tour starts at 1 p.m. June 11. The event will include one barn the Windham Historical Society is saving from destruction, which it plans to move to its new “Village Green” complex at Windham Center. Tickets are $10 and will support the Village Green effort. Rain date is June 12. Meet at the society’s brick building, 234 Windham Center Road.
For more on Maine’s barns, visit www.ourbarns.com.
Don Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Raymond. He can be reached at: