RAYMOND – Raymond resident Don Perkins will share his love of barns at an upcoming meeting of the Windham Historical Society slated for next Saturday, Jan. 22.

The public is welcome to attend the free lecture, which takes place at the Windham Public Library from 9 a.m. to noon.

Perkins, 40, a lifelong Mainer who now resides in Raymond with his wife Sonya, has always had an interest in carpentry but became especially interested in barns – including their history, various construction techniques, and future preservation – after writing a series of 20 newspaper articles exploring the history and construction of area barns in 2007 and 2008.

Since that series appeared, Perkins, who worked as a carpenter and builder early in his working career, has honed his knowledge of Maine barns and has taken to the speaking circuit sharing that knowledge and enthusiasm with audiences in the Lakes Region. He is currently writing another series of articles exploring barns in the Oxford/Norway area for the Advertiser Democrat.

The Lakes Region Weekly recently asked Perkins about his interest in barns and the current state of barns in the area, both topics he will expand upon at the Jan. 22 lecture.

Q: Barns are a huge, no pun intended, topic. What will you be focusing on at your presentation?

A: I’ve put together a PowerPoint presentation that begins with some 50-odd slides of barns in the surrounding area. I’ll be focusing on the history of our barns: from the earliest days right through the 20th century. They sort of went through generational phases that reflect the story of rural life. They’re one of the last links to the old world.

Q: What sparked your interest in barns? When did it start?

A: I came to barns through an interest in historic carpentry. I discovered timber framing through books back in my teens and was pretty fascinated with it. I wanted to rush out and get an old broadax and try my hand at hewing beams. I looked at tall pines differently after that.

Serious study began in 2007-08 when I freelanced for the Gray-New Gloucester Independent. I wrote features and needed to come up with an idea for an ongoing series. Barns were something that just popped into my head. I wasn’t sure if it would really be of interest or flesh out into anything. Some people snickered at the idea. I guess I wanted to learn more about them. I had some construction knowledge and a long fascination with timber framing – joinery – which I always knew was the “real carpentry.” Since then I’ve found many folks share a fondness for barns, which encompass far more than historic carpentry.

Q: What kinds of barns are popular here in Maine?

A: Because we’re in New England, essentially the birthplace of America, Maine is a great place to see both old and new barns. The “English Barn” is what first graced our landscape, but it didn’t take long before we put our own spin on it and came up with the “New England Barn.” With its gable-entry and long central aisle, this was the next generation and probably the most common type of barn found in our area. Southern and central Maine has most of these. I have family in Aroostook County and have noticed a different barnscape there where the gambrel barn – much like the big white barn of the Hall’s at the Windham rotary – is the predominant style. These gambrels are the third generation of barn here in Maine. And up in (Aroostook) County, like the Hall’s, almost all the barns are detached from the house, which is interesting.

Q: Are there types of barns you like more than others?

A: Because of my construction background and joinery interests, I’m partial to barns built before the Civil War, which are usually made of hand-hewn timber. Something about their proportions is pleasing. There’s a vast history in them that’s all but lost. Joining uneven, hewn timber was a whole different art form. There’s a lot to investigate there.

Q: Is there a term for the study of barns?

A: Not really. At speaking engagements, I often joke that I’m a “barnologist!”

Q: Where does the word “barn” come from?

A: We probably associate the word with animals today, but it’s actually an old English word meaning a place where one stores barley. It’s why “barn” and “barley” share a common spelling.

Q: How about modern barns? Would you ever consider metal buildings as being legitimate barns?

A: I wouldn’t. They’re pretty far removed from what graced our traditional farmsteads. Metal buildings are too commercial. They don’t have the big haylofts or basements like the old wooden barns did.

Q: Are barns in decline in Maine, the Lakes Region, Windham?

A: Most senior citizens I speak with remember a landscape with many more barns. I don’t necessarily think one community is suffering more than another, but New Gloucester is a bastion of wonderfully preserved barns. Barns are going (away) simply because people don’t farm like they used to.

Q: Anything owners can do to prevent the decline of their barn?

A: Absolutely. There are the obvious things, like keeping the roof in good condition, but other not-so-obvious remedies can go a long way and cost next to nothing. Cupolas or vents shouldn’t be boarded up. Pigeons can be a huge problem and many barn owners board up rooftop cupolas. But the buildings need to breathe, especially if they’re still used for hay and animals. Putting up wire and screen is what you want to do instead of sealing off vents.

Shrubs and trees are also a common problem. I see many buildings with vegetation growing up all around them. This is harmful because it keeps a building from drying out between rains, especially the sills and lower walls. Trees are a problem when branches begin touching the roof, too. They can blow and start tearing roof shingles.

Q: How is the economy affecting barns? Are people foregoing maintenance to focus on their houses instead?

A: Yes, it’s certainly a problem facing current barn owners. Re-roofing a barn can cost tens of thousands of dollars these days. But the neglect has been more long-standing than this current recession. I’ve talked to a couple restorers who recognize the decline really began with the Great Depression.

Q: You’ve already got a website devoted to barns (www.ourbarns.com). Since you like to write, do you have plans to write a book about barns?

A: Back in 2008, my first barn series really took off. Everyone said I should flesh it out into a book. I decided to shoot for the moon and sent out a proposal to Down East Books with copies of all 20 articles I’d written, plus supporting letters to the editor. About four months later, just when I’d pretty much given up, I was shocked when my submission came back with some very encouraging language suggesting I broaden my scope to a statewide barn review.

They wanted to see some sample chapters, which I sent. The editor I was dealing with continued to send encouraging news but I stopped hearing from him. After a while I made contact and he told me he was disappointed but that he was just one of a whole panel of editors and not everybody was on board with the project. I then sent out three proposals to other publishers, but all got rejected.

A lot has happened since then. My name is starting to spread and my knowledge has grown. I’m currently writing a monthly series for the Advertiser Democrat in Norway and have led barn tours and done a fair amount of speaking. It’s time to start soliciting again. Everyone I talk to thinks this would make a great book. There are neat stories about “barn people.”

Q: Has the study of barns helped you to make peripheral discoveries?

A: The subject keeps leading to more interesting and interrelated topics. For instance, I never expected to learn how disease influenced barns … and war keeps coming up as this kind of demarcation line. The history of dairy and farming in general is a fascinating topic. Maine farmers have been fighting an uphill battle pretty much since they arrived here. Even the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 had an effect. I discovered it was the dairy industry that really saved farming here in Maine.

There’s also the mysterious world of medieval carpentry. The old European cathedrals and barns come from the same school of architecture: when designer and builder held the same respected profession in Europe’s Artisan class and not mutually exclusive like they are today. It’s hard to fathom now, but builders used to construct barns with no tape measure or math whatsoever. Everything was done with circles and arcs and by transferring patterns. Again, many mysteries are all but lost. I often wonder why many of our barns don’t measure to a set dimension on modern tape measures: they’re frequently an odd size like 34-feet, 9-inches wide, when you’d expect an even 32 or 36 feet. Roof pitch was done differently, too. It all goes back to proportion. I think it’s why the old barns have more pleasing profiles.

Q: How does one go about studying barns? In addition to attending your lecture, where would you point someone wanting to learn more?

A: I was very surprised to discover how little material was available when I began my own research. The Timber Framers Guild in New Hampshire is a good resource; they publish a magazine. One book, “Field Guide to New England Barns and Farm Buildings” by Thomas Durant Visser, is about the best out there. One book kind of leads to another but it’s a pretty obscure area of study. Much of it is learned by actually visiting the buildings, doing comparisons and then identifying trends.

Self-described “barnologist” Don Perkins, standing in front of the former Hall family barn at the Windham rotary, is holding a Windham Historical Society-sponsored lecture on local barns Saturday, Jan. 22 at the Windham Public Library. (Photo by Rich Obrey)


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