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Pa. man gives old barns new life

January 31, 2000

Mike GearhartBY RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Mike Gearhart makes his living by dismantling history.

Gearhart, 31, of rural Mercersburg, owns Barn Busters. He razes old barns and sells the boards to companies and individuals to make houses, parts of houses and furniture.

His tools are a crowbar, chain saw and a hammer.

He was an electronic technician at Grove Worldwide until last year. "It was a good job, but I never liked staying in the same place all the time," he said.

Gearhart is doing anything but staying in one place these days. He goes where the barns are and he travels to sell the wood he gets from them. "I have to go where the work is," he said.

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His most recent barn razing was in Kylertown, Pa., northwest of State College. Then he planned to haul a load of wood to a Portland, Maine, company that makes furniture out of old barn boards.

Gearhart's business touches four centuries. Some of his barns were built in the late 18th century. Most were built in the late 19th century or early 20th. He uses 21st century technology, the Internet, to find buyers for his boards, and he advertises in newspapers and the Yellow Pages.

He said he dismantles 10 to 12 barns a year. An average barn is about 50 feet by 60 and contains 6,000 board-feet of lumber. Working alone, he needs a week to dismantle it.

He starts with the siding, then rips out the interior boards from stalls and granaries. The older barns are "mortise-and-tenon" construction. A hole is chiseled into one beam while the end of the beam that is connected to it is chiseled down to fit in the hole. The two pieces are held together with a wooden peg.

In rare cases, if a barn is in good enough condition and a customer wants to spend the money, Gearhart will dismantle a barn piece by piece. He uses a crane to release the tension on the mortised and tenoned joints and pounds out the peg. He's helping to rebuild one such barn into a home on the coast of Maine.

Usually, though, he pulls off the siding, guts the interior, then pulls the barn down with his pickup truck.

The prime wood is chestnut. It's hard like oak, is lighter in color and has had its texture enhanced over the years by tiny wormholes. Oak and pine are also found in old barns, he said.

Gearhart removes the nails and trims off the split or rotted ends of the boards to get them ready for sale. Uses for old barn boards include flooring, paneling, kitchen cabinets and furniture-making.

Gearhart has learned a little history in his work. He can tell a barn's age by its construction. Early ones have hand-hewn beams and boards. "They didn't have saw mills until the late 1800s," he said. The oldest barn he's dismantled was built in 1818 in Mercersburg. "The granary board was engraved with the date July 12, 1818, and it had some initials on it," he said. "The owner kept that board."

Old barns are disappearing from the landscape for many reasons, Gearhart said. More farmers are going out of business and don't want to pay taxes on a building they no longer use. And modern farming requires modern barns. Old ones can't store round hay bales or don't lend themselves to modern milking methods. Some have just rotted away.

Gearhart rarely pays for a barn unless it has prime chestnut. Mostly he takes them down for the wood. If the barn is in such poor shape the wood has no value, he charges the owner to raze it.

Barn boards sell for up to $2 a board-foot, he said.

Gearhart is expanding the furniture end of the business. He designs and builds coffee tables, bookcases, stands, cabinets and headboards, among other items.

"When I make a table out of a barn board, I'm building an antique," he said. "The wood already has a lot of history behind it."

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