Preserving a sense of history

W.Va. historians prepare for October tour of Jefferson County's old barns

W.Va. historians prepare for October tour of Jefferson County's old barns

May 03, 2002|BY Chris Copley

CHARLES TOWN, W,Va. - On a cold, windy March day, two white-haired men stand between parallel earthen ramps running to the upper story of a long white barn. They stretch a tape measure between the ramps. Nearby, David Hartley holds a clipboard and pencil, shivering in his yellow jacket.

"Dave, that's 140 inches from the inside of the ramp to the inside of the ramp," calls out the man in a worn, red insulated vest. He and his partner take another measure. "Distance from corner to ramp - 288 inches. That's 24 feet exactly," he calls out.

Hartley records the numbers on his clipboard.

Before the morning is done, the two men wielding the tape measure - Tom McGarry, head of restoration and construction for the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission, and commission volunteer Roger Dailey - measure the dimensions of each aspect of the barn. They measure its doors and windows, space between doors, length of ramps, height of barn, even the height of the brick arch over each window.


"We measure everything," Hartley said. "The exterior today. The interior next week."

McGarry says his team is recording the dimensions of the 200-foot-long barn on the Altona Farm near Charles Town - and five other historical barns - in order to preserve part of Jefferson County's agricultural past.

"We're doing it as a public service," he says. "Barns in the county are few and far between. They ought to be recorded for history."

Measuring what's been lost

The culture of West Virginia's eastern-most county is changing as the population swells with refugees from the urban sprawl of Baltimore and Washington. The Panhandle's old agricultural buildings are coming down as new houses go up.

Historians in Jefferson County watch the spreading development with foreboding. They fear the growth in population and boom in home-building will erase vital architectural history.

Bill Theriault, chairman of the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission in Charles Town, wants to make county residents aware of the situation. To do that, he is organizing a barn tour, an agricultural version of the traditional house and garden tour.

"We're trying to do two things: get people interested in barns because they're interesting structures; and get people to think about agricultural issues," Theriault said.

McGarry and his team at the Altona Farm are part of that effort. Their measurements will be used to create architectural drawings for each barn on the tour. Architectural historians and students from Shepherd College have visited five county barns representing a variety of styles and periods from the history of Jefferson County. These barns plus two more will make up the tour, scheduled for October.

"There will be exhibits placed at each of the sites," Theriault said. "Some of the information presented will have been collected at that barn: when the barn was built; the type of barn; significant features of the barn; how it was used; info about the farm itself."

Barn design evolved over time as farmers tried to make their operation more efficient. Barns became longer and taller; overhanging bays provided more hay storage and also protected cattle from cold weather; entrances were built on more than one level; roofs expanded to allow more storage in the loft; materials evolved from hand-hewn timbers to machine-sawn timbers and eventually to prefabricated metal panels.

One common feature in the farm landscape actually developed comparatively recently. After the Civil War, the expanding need for storing grains through winter led to a new farm structure: the silo.

"Silos only date to the 1880s," Theriault said. "Concrete silos were made in the 1920s. They become the tombstones of the barns. A lot of times, you'll find a concrete silo next to the foundations of a barn. You can use silos to pinpoint where barns were."

Barn architecture changes

Back at the Altona barn, after completing the exterior measurements, McGarry meets another team member, Harpers Ferry, W.Va., architectural historian Walton "Kip" Stowell Sr. inside the dimly lit barn.

"It's a hybrid design - a timber frame structure but with bearing masonry walls of brick," McGarry says. "They built it in two nearly identical sections, the first in 1850 and the second in 1910 or 1915. They tried to duplicate the first section when they built on."

Stowell marvels at the contrast between the wood-pegged, heavy timber frame of the older section and the iron-strapped smaller timber frame of the newer section.

"It's really two barns," he says. "The technology between 1850 and 1915 advanced."

McGarry says one reason he wants to preserve the county's barns is to record the technology of the bygone era.

"You want to use green wood to make a timber frame. It's easier to cut," he says. "They knew how to build with green wood. They did it all the time. This was knowledge they needed. But when they got balloon framing and planed lumber, they stopped building timber frames."

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