December 9, 2012

Author Q & A: Barn praising

An appreciation for old joinery leads a writer to dig deep into storehouses of Maine heritage.


Don Perkins has worked as a carpenter and woodworker, and it was that work that got him interested in barns.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Don Perkins traveled all around the state to explore barn designs and evolution.

Courtesy photo

"I had an interest in old joinery, but I never expected to make barns a study of mine," he said. "It has been fascinating, and becomes more fascinating the more research I do."

Maine barns come in three basic styles: English barns, which use a tying joint that dates to the 13th century; New England or Yankee barns; and modern barns, which started appearing in the 1930s.

"The Barns of Maine: Our History, Our Stories" tells how those barns developed in Maine, where they are located and how they are used. The paperback is published by The History Press, has 192 pages, is priced at $21.99 and is available in local bookstores and at Perkins' website

Perkins began work as a freelance writer in 1995, and wrote columns for the Portland Press Herald for seven years.


Q: These old barns are sort of a window into history. Explain how the changes in barns relate to changes in farming.

A: From the construction of them you can tell certain things. How they are built, the way they did the joinery tells about their ethnicity. These were English folks who came here, and we have that as the beginning of the culture. This is New England, and I never realized before that that is a literal statement about how the region was settled.

The design of barns and the way they developed over the years, with floor plans and layout, show the stages that farming went through. They were originally used to store hay and grains, and then increasingly focused on livestock.

I traveled all over the state to research this book. What I discovered was that Maine barns went through three generations or phases. The first being the English barns, the second being the New England or Yankee, and the third being the big, tall gambrel-roofed barns.

Aroostook County's barnscape is primarily gambrel barns. Washington County has mostly English barns. The rest of Maine exhibits New England- or Yankee-style barns. There are a few factors determining why each region has what.

Q: Why is it important to preserve barns if they have outlived their original purpose?

A: That is a concern many barn owners face. I think culturally it is important to preserve them. Privately, it is a whole 'nother matter for a farmer to preserve a building that isn't useful.

The English tying joint, which originated in England in the 13th century, had been used in barns for 500 years when it was brought to this country and used in the English barns. For something to last 500 to 600 years, for the practice to keep going on this long, is really important.

People talk about the National Register of Historic Places and for what type of buildings it should be used. I think that any building surviving in the 21st century that has an English tying joint: That is reason enough to be on the historic register.

Q: You write about some barn preservation workers. Is it a job that really requires a specialist?

A: It depends on what kind of barn you have. If you have the traditional form, hand hewn with the English tying joint, you need someone who is a specialist. But with the ones built after the 1930s or '40s, a regular carpenter can do it.

Q: What is your opinion of barn conversions: to stores, houses, concert venues or whatever.

A: That has been really a great thing for the preservation of barns.

(Continued on page 2)

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