Save American Barns
By Wendy Komancheck | Jan 30, 2009
Photographic Essay of the American Barn
John High, of Narvon, Pennsylvania, saves barns. He salvages them by tearing them down, board by board, and keeping everything, including nails, lumber and beams to move to another site. Through his meticulous razing, he believes he is rescuing history.
High explains that barns have stories. He says, “First, there’s a date stone, with the builder’s name, his wife’s name and the year that the barn was built. But I’ve seen initials and dates carved into wood beams. And, there are different types of barns. I’ve found different artifacts, such as hardware, an old sleigh up in the top part of a barn … all different pieces of history. The barns are treasure troves, with photos, letters hidden behind boards, all kinds of things.”
Before he was a barn saver, High worked for an excavating business, where he bulldozed barns and sent the materials to local landfills. He always felt a pang of sadness as these grand structures were destroyed and thrown away. “I imagined our forefathers working hard to build (those barns) only for (them) to end up in a landfill or burned. It’s a part of our history,” he says.
High started his barn-saving business in 1990 after he was laid off. Since he had already established himself by taking down barns over the weekends in nearby counties, he broadened his business and began working at it full-time. “It’s a labor of love. I enjoy getting up and going to work in the mornings. I feel for the people who hate their jobs,” he says.
High and his crew have had some interesting challenges, particularly from the animal community. “I’ve had rabid raccoons come after me, and I’ve come across skunks and groundhogs who didn’t want to leave their home. And, I’ve seen bees. I keep a case of bee spray with me to take care of the wasps. But with honeybees, I contact the local beekeeper, who takes down the hive and takes the queen, which has the other bees following her. I move boards out of the way for the beekeeper to get to the nest. He can get the whole thing – hive, wax, honey, everything,” High says.
Local historical societies challenged him early in his career about removing the barns and other structures from their original spots. They felt it was taking away from the integrity of the farms. High says, “Now, they love me because they realize that so many barns are coming down and are wasted in a landfill. It’s better to take them down and move them somewhere else.”
In 2007, High dismantled a barn for Kutztown University’s Heritage Center in Berks County. Eventually, the barn will be rebuilt to its original glory, where it will be recognized as a historical landmark on the Heritage Center’s grounds. Currently, he’s working with the Agrarian Country to restore the Star Barn in Middletown, Pennsylvania. To learn more about the Star Barn, visit the website www.TheStarBarn.com/default.aspx.
What barn parts High doesn’t use in the restoration process, he sells to antique store owners, as well as keeping pieces in storage. He’s donated parts to churches, schools, scout groups and other community organizations. In 1999, High donated wood for a manger and stable in a nativity scene in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. His wife, Linda Oatman High, is an accomplished children’s writer. She wrote an article about him, where she quoted him as saying, “That was a good feeling: knowing that so many people enjoyed the nativity scene.”
Additionally, High sells wood to local Amish and Mennonite furniture companies, as well as to homeowners who use the wood for roofing and flooring. When he dismantles barns to be rebuilt at other locations, he includes blueprints for the builders to reconstruct them as homes, offices, restaurants, novelty shops and museums.
Although High receives a lot of his business from word of mouth, his mission has been told through his wife’s children’s book, The Barnsaver. It chronicles a man and his son as they get up in the early morning hours to go to a barn site and take it down. As the story unfolds, the son realizes the relevance of preserving history through saving barns, which illustrates why High gets up in the wee hours of the morning to rescue the barns vanishing from the mid-Atlantic landscape.
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