I’m tearing down my great-grandfather’s barn.
It’s not easy.
I mean that in so many ways.
The barn’s been standing for 122 years. When it was built, a damp pasture spread out to the east – too wet to farm, but good enough for growing grass. Up until a few years ago, some of the wooden fenceposts were still visible. About the time I was born, tile was dug in that drained the rest of the farm into the wet pasture, turning it into a duck slough. In the 50’s, the barn started to sag slowly to the east and my Great Uncle Carl got some engineering students from a college to design a system of cables that held it in place.
Now, with the wonders of climate change, the duck slough is a shallow lake that laps against the barn’s foundation, and the rock foundation has crumbled away under about 80% of the building.
It’s a basement barn, with giant hay mow doors to the west where a team and wagon could be driven in to unload hay and straw. For the first couple years we lived here, I kept hogs in the lower level while I was saving money to build new buildings on high ground. After that, I turned the ground level hay mow into a stall for my daughters’ horses. When they left for college, the horses went to a new home, and for the next couple decades, the barn wasn’t used for much at all.
If I’d had a spare $50,000 twenty years ago, I could have fixed the foundation and re-shingled, and it would have been good as new, although still useless for my needs. Ten years ago, if I would’ve had a spare summer, I could have carefully deconstructed the building and saved all the wood, including a couple 30-foot, 4 x 6 beams and a lot of other dimension wood that you literally can’t buy any more. The project fell into that grey area where free labor would have been the only profitable or feasible option to make me consider its undertaking. As they do, my children grew up and became gainfully employed, and I was too lazy, so the barn endured like an intermittent tooth ache, a reminder that I someday needed to do something with it.
It continued to sag until the basement ceiling was only about five feet high and the hay mow floor mostly rotted away. My grandchildren are now ages 5 to 12, prime exploration age, and I just wasn’t comfortable having such a tempting and dangerous attraction. They’re smart kids, but I was a smart kid, too, and I did all sorts of dumb things in the name of curiosity.
I could have just thrown a match in the door and walked away, but it was my great-grandfather’s barn. l knew the wood in it could be put to use, so I started to dismantle it.
Working slowly, with what I felt was an excess of caution, I pulled the support beams out one at a time. With each pull, I had a rising expectation that the battered old roof would fall. The plan, in my head, was that the roof would collapse and I’d salvage what I could, working from ground level. Then I’d push walls over and repeat the process. Finally, I’d throw a match into what was left and have nothing remaining but ashes and guilt.
Every chain on the farm was hooked together so I’d have plenty of margin when it started to collapse. I pulled the last support column out and…nothing happened. Not a sag, not a groan. Great-Grandpa had hired a good carpenter in 1897.
I got out my grinder to cut through the support cables - an inch of braided steel that the reciprocating saw barely scratched. I cut through one, then the other.
I put the bucket of the loader against the eave and gave it a gentle nudge, then a stronger one, and then took a run at it. The whole barn twitched, shifted, slid six feet sideways, and dropped straight down into the basement - intact.
I didn’t know whether to cheer or cry.
Great-Grandpa built the barn when he could barely speak English. No one knows whether there were debates between him and Great-Grandma about building a nice barn BEFORE a nice house. It’s been standing on its own for 122 years, in a place with literally the worst weather in the world, through at least a half century of profound neglect. The shingles are rotten, the foundation eroded, and every main support beam pulled out and placed in an untidy pile. For its first fifty years, it was a piece of cutting- edge agricultural architecture. I can’t look at it without remembering my first years of farming when the barn was full of purebred Duroc breeding stock, of the winter days in the 80’s when I’d lean back among the straw bales and try to figure out how I was going to keep from going broke, my only companion a grumpy black tomcat. One Christmas Eve, I remember showing my niece how a horse’s nose feels. I was washed with a flood of memories involving persistence, endurance, and change.
It’s going to be a lot of work taking it apart piece by piece to get as much use out of it as possible.
Copyright 2019 Brent Olson