A Catskill Catalog: September 12, 2012

All right, kids. If we’re living here in the country, we ought to know a little something about barns. I confess I’ve been living here four decades and my lack of barn knowledge, frankly, is an embarrassment. Time to study.

Start with Cynthia G. Falk’s new book, Barns of New York: Rural Architecture of the Empire State (Cornell University Press, 2012).

Perhaps, the young professor herself will drive down from Cooperstown, as she did last Saturday to present a slide show at the Skene Library in Fleischmanns.

Barns are topical. The Historical Society of the Town of Middletown has conducted a survey of barns in the town, with an eye toward preservation of what still stands. With so few working farms remaining in our region, most standing barns are under used, under maintained, and deteriorating. If we are going to save the barns, now is the time.

First, a definition, so we know what we are to save. A barn, Professor Falk teaches us, is any building “used to house animals, store or process crops, keep or maintain agricultural equipment, or provide an essential or useful purpose related to agricultural activities.”
In these parts, that’s a lot of buildings. Hen house, silos, sap houses, and storage sheds are all barns.

On the property I call home, Melvin Mayes built a barn, a somewhat ramshackle affair, two stories, about 40-feet long by 16-feet wide. I use it for utility and storage, but Melvin raised poultry in wire cages on the second floor, and kept a cow in the attached shed. It’s a barn.
You’ll have to decide for yourself if you think it deserves saving – my barn ain’t pretty – but I had a metal roof put on it, a number of years ago, and while she leans, she doesn’t yet appear to be falling over.

Falling over is the danger many of our standing barns face. The big snow a couple winters back brought down a few. Professor Falk was sure to point out that the first order of barn saving is the application of a new roof, and metal roofs can be fastened right over the failing shingles.

Cynthia Falk is Associate Professor of Material Culture at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, perhaps the premier museum studies program in America. Her specialty is drawing inferences and conclusions about historical ways of living, and of making a living, based on the artifacts of the period. For the past three years, successive classes of grad students have researched every conceivable type of agricultural building, the full diversity of barns.
The earliest New York barns were multi-purpose buildings. Barns were designed to house animals, store crops, and provide a threshing floor to process the crop. These first New York barns were of two types.

Dutch barns are square, with the barn door under the peak. Dutch barns were built on an H-shaped frame, so the sidewalls extend beyond the load-bearing timbers. English barns, on the other hand, are rectangular, with the barn door under the eaves. The outer walls sheath the load-bearing balloon-construction framing.

Now, here’s where I felt lacking. I never knew the difference. Didn’t know what a Dutch barn was. Hadn’t a clue. So, I’m thinking back. Was the barn where I unloaded hay those many summers ago a Dutch barn or English? I remember the big door as being under the peak. Those huge framing timbers made an H, didn’t they? Got to be Dutch.

But we didn’t pay much attention to barns when barns held cows, and smelled strong, and were full of the dust of old hay. Barns seemed less romantic when each formed the heart of an actual going business, when the cows had to be milked at the crack of dawn and at the close of day, and there seemed to be mud everywhere.

Margaretville Central School teacher, the late Nat Ciccone, had a passion for the old barns long before the threat to them became obvious. His 1980s photographs of Catskill Mountain barns are, today, collector’s items.

In the latter part of the 19th century, Catskill Mountain farmers turned increasingly to dairying. The classic gambrel-roofed dairy barn, with its rounded, multi-story roofline, dates from this period. In the 1920s and ’30s, the truss-supported, arch-roof barn became a staple of the local dairy industry.
Dairy barns of the Catskills are among our most precious historical artifacts. In New York State, 650 Dutch barns still stand. At Margaretville’s upcoming Cauliflower Festival, the historical society will present a photo exhibit of area barns, based on their on-going survey. See how many you can identify as Dutch or English. I am betting our Catskill Mountain counties contain quite a few of the state’s 650 remaining Dutch barns.

Now, that barn on the way into town…
billbirns@catskill.net