Restoring Old Barns

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by Pixabay/David Mark

Should you restore it? Bulldoze it, sell it, or save it? Pray that the next big wind will just take it away? Barns are as unique as their owners, and the solution to a rundown barn will largely depend on what you’d like to get out of it. Livestock shelter? Storage? Keep it on display as a relic?

My own opinions on the subject stem from the fact that I grew up in the presence of a picturesque early 20th century New England dairy barn, which had entered a state of suspended animation around 1940 when the farmer who built it retired.

The farmer who sold to my parents had built it himself with just the help of one hired hand. It was a three-story dairy barn with a gambrel roof and an exposed basement foundation made from massive granite slabs quarried on the farm. Aboveground, the structure was of mortise and peg beam construction using chestnut, with plenty of white oak, maple, cedar, and Northern white pine throughout. The preservation of such a sturdy piece of history can easily be justified.

At the other end of the barn spectrum sits the old Ozarks barn on the farm where I live now. Not so old, or needing to be as sturdy, this little Southern-style barn was built around 1950. The roof is metal and the siding had gaps to allow airflow, and the thin-poured concrete foundation is sufficient to hold the building’s modest weight.

This barn has the convenience of electricity — where the packrats have allowed the wiring to survive — but inferior materials, inadequate construction, and inattentive maintenance have resulted in leakage, wind damage, and rot. For years I’ve wondered if this barn is worth saving.

Barn Goals

When owners are considering barn restoration, they should begin with a frank assessment of the barn they own, the resources available, and the goals they hope to achieve. Stability should always be the first concern, because no amount of work is worthwhile if tomorrow the barn collapses because of rotten beams or a faulty foundation. A building inspection by professional can answer that question, for a nominal fee or even in certain cases for free, and point to a range of solutions, either temporary or more lasting as circumstances and checkbooks allow.

Do you wish to maintain historical accuracy? If so, reconstruction costs, future maintenance, insurance, and taxes may be high. With fewer builders today experienced in wood-frame construction, it is common for insurance companies to say they cannot insure a historic barn for its true replacement cost.

Something else to consider is durability, achievable at a somewhat smaller cost if one is willing to sacrifice historical accuracy or if the barn isn’t particularly unique. I have known both wealthy landowners and struggling back-to-the-landers equally full of complaints about how much it costs to “save” an old barn. Sometimes those with the most money scream the loudest. But all the farmers and barn authorities I know and trust tell me if a barn is anywhere near structurally sound, the cost of restoring and maintaining it thereafter will in most cases be less than the cost of building something comparable new. Bargain priced Quonset huts and cheap metal pole barns have their applications, to be sure, but for pure aesthetics, most barn lovers will say nothing else can compare with an old barn in good repair.

Sometimes repair may be unrealistic for a variety of reasons. In those instances, the costs of doing nothing must be weighed. Barns with missing or loose boards that cannot be secured are invitations to theft, vandalism, and even arson. Talk to your insurance agent about how adventuresome children and reckless teens seem drawn to a dilapidated old barn, and ask what your liability coverage (even for trespassers) should be.

Covering Costs

Luckily there are a number of resources for owners of old barns, and none that I’ve found are dismissive of inquiries because a barn might be beyond saving. The National Barn Alliance is a good place to start, and several states also have established programs, such as Iowa Barn Foundation and the Michigan Barn Preservation Network. If your state does not have a similar resource devoted specifically to barns, check with your state’s historic preservation office or a local preservation society.

Help might come in the form of free or low-cost inspections, grants, federal or state tax credits to cover expenses, and sometimes state property tax relief. People passionate about old barns will likely be able to tell you from experience whether damage is cosmetic or structural and give you a ballpark figure for repairs.

Experts in the field within each state can better tell you how renovation and restoration of an old barn might alter your property taxes, thus saving you sticker shock after the local tax assessor comes to call. Along those same lines, make sure and speak with your county inspection department, in the event you need to be within building code guidelines. It is advisable to get estimates from the kind of experienced carpenters and builders that barn society members can recommend. At least a generation has passed since nearly all builders were experienced with wood-frame construction. In our region, Amish and Mennonite crews make up a substantial number of the work teams with sufficient experience to save or salvage an old barn.

Don’t be swayed merely because some elderly member of the local historical society can remember when your barn was in working prime. When you ask for bids, find out what other jobs builders have done, view their work, and talk to those owners.

After a careful weighing of the facts, not every barn can be saved. Your decision will hopefully be largely guided by respect for the history and aesthetics of old barns, but factors ranging from personal finances to encroaching development and the laws of eminent domain may take precedence. In my case, while searching for a salvage operator to dismantle the barn I was told was unaffordable to repair, I found a crew that repaired the barn for a reasonable cost, and now it’s in good enough shape to outlast me.

Even if you decide that the old barn must come down, the decisions that need to be made and the opportunities presented are not over. Check Craigslist and similar sites, and you’ll find a number of posts from people who will buy your barn for the usable lumber it may still contain. When I did a quick search, I found ads from around the country looking for chestnut, elm, cedar, pine, hemlock, oak, hickory, and maple. Even the lowly hackberry tree was sometimes used long ago, and can be repurposed today. Sometimes buyers are more concerned with categories such as “beams,” “clapboard siding,” or “posts.”

Woods that have survived 100 years are often tight-grained and weathered or worn in ways that make them highly desirable for rustic furniture and finished carpentry jobs, such as floors, doors, and paneling. Also in high demand are the hand-forged hinges, nails, and buckles that may have outlasted the woods they held together.

Craigslist will enlighten you to the value of some of the contents to be found in your old barn. Mine contained a one-horse plow, an ancient wheelbarrow, and a heavy iron wheel that had been seriously bent in some catastrophic accident. Although no longer useable, all three would make a fascinating focal point in someone’s yard or garden.

I found a post from someone forced to remove his barn due to road construction, advertising the entire structure for “$5,000 or best offer.” Ads like this one usually also specify that the buyer agrees to remove all materials and leave the worksite free of debris within a specific time period. Experienced salvage operators will want to know if you have a place to dispose of unwanted material or if they will be required to haul it away. These are arrangements that should be spelled out in a contract or written estimate. Don’t fail to ask what insurance the person offering to do a salvage job carries, and for good measure ask your own insurance agent about your liability coverage should a worker be injured on the job.

Raze or Restore

My take away message to you is, don’t underestimate the value of your old barn. The possibility of getting it repaired for a manageable cost, or getting paid for its salvage value thereby helping defray the cost of building a structure to replace it, is at least worth looking into rather than letting it continue to disintegrate. If your barn absolutely must come down, perhaps you can console yourself with a dining table made from its timbers or a quaint little chicken house that preserves some of its charm.

What about the barn from my childhood, you might ask? Although I haven’t been back in 40 years, I recently searched for it on Google Earth and saw that the current owners went to considerable expense to replace the roof with what appeared to be authentic shake shingles. Mark one more barn dilemma solved.

Ever wonder why barns are red? It’s much more about function, utility and preservation than you might have otherwise guessed.

Josh Young is the author of two books on Missouri travel and history for Globe Pequot Press. A former social worker, Josh now works and plays in the deep Ozark woods at his home on Long Creek Herb Farm.