Rebuilding Historic Barns

Pair of barns being torn down and rebuilt as one.

As Mike Hart went through the lumber from one of two local barns that are being dismantled, then reassembled as one, he noticed a piece was from an American Chestnut tree.

"That's an extinct piece of wood there," Hart, of Hartland Demolition & Restoration, told The Reporter. "It wouldn't surprise me if there's more."

American Chestnut logs are only occasionally found in old buildings in Bucks County and seldom in Montgomery County, although that type of wood is more commonly found farther south, such as in Chester or Delaware counties in Pennsylvania or in the states of Delaware or Maryland, he said.

The barn on Minsi Trail in Hilltown and one on Forrest Road in Franconia were each built about 1850. Each is on township-owned open space land. The two will be combined into one that will be reconstructed at the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville.

Known as the Nyce Barn Project, the Mennonite Heritage Center will use the barn to store historic farm equipment and items used in events such as the Whack & Roll croquet tournament and the Apple Butter Frolic.

Another purpose of the barn is to bring back memories of local barns.

"That's a big part of it," Dan Lapp, the Mennonite Heritage Center's development director, said.

While the second floor will be an authentic re-creation of the old barns, Hart said, the first floor will have a larger, more open space and a concrete floor.

"That will be used for classes," Lapp said. The classes could include some, such as weaving, that are already offered at the center, or other suggested new ones, such as ones on canning food, he said.

About $150,000 of donations has been received for the project, with about $50,000 more needed, Lapp said.

The initial plan was to move only the Franconia barn to the Mennonite Heritage Center, but the Hilltown one will now make up the main part of the reconstructed barn, with the Franconia one being used to supply additional parts, Hart said. Floor boards from an early 1900s barn being dismantled in Limerick will also probably be used in the project, as well as some barn parts he's accumulated from previous projects, he said.

"Because of the size of this one here, it lends itself a little bit better to the usages that we want to try to put it to," Hart said recently during the dismantling of the Hilltown barn.

The barn would have been a typical one for the Bucks and Montgomery County area, he said.

Some interesting remaining features include the wooden hay trolley, wooden water tank and the original granary, he said.

The second-story granary was used to store grains such as oats, wheat or barley after it came from the nearby thrashing floor. It's uncommon to see barns that still have the granary, Hart said.

"A lot of times, over the years, they were taken out just to make a little more room," he said.

He also pointed out the tin plates covering parts of the granary wall.

"The rats loved to chew into the board to get into the grain, so almost always the granaries are patched up with tin can lids and license plates and different things like that," Hart said. "This one's no different."

A corn crib on the property will also be moved to the Mennonite Heritage Center and reconstructed, he said.

All of the pieces of the dismantled barns are individually tagged to assist in putting the parts back together, he said.

Work at the Hilltown site is expected to continue throughout June, he said. The goal is to have the reconstructed barn completed by this year's Apple Butter Frolic taking place Oct. 5 at the Mennonite Heritage Center.

Whitewash on the interior logs will be pressure washed off before the reconstruction.

"It was mandatory in the 1930s if you operated a dairy farm out of your barn," Hart said.

The "summer beam" or main girder of the barn is 16 inches wide and 55 feet long, he said.

"That is a real chunk of timber there," Hart said. "That's a big oak tree."

The beam, which he estimated weighs more than 3,000 pounds, was probably cut from a nearby tree and dragged to the barn with the help of animals, he said.

"Imagine, they got it up by hand," he said of the original builders.

To do that, it took a group of men, perhaps having piled up stone to assist with the job and lifting one end at a time into place, he said.

There are also about 20, 40-foot-long beams and a secondary summer beam that used two pieces to span the 55-foot length of the barn.

"It's gonna be a heavy duty load of lumber," Hart said. The 55-foot beam is two feet longer than the longest tractor-trailer, he said.

Both the Franconia and Hilltown barns also have stone foundations made from local stone that will be reused in the combined barn.

One part that won't be taken along with the Hilltown barn, though, is the about 2 feet of dried manure remaining in a portion of it. It's unusual to see that because the farmers generally removed manure on a regular basis, Hart said, but apparently that was no longer being done when the barn was last used for farming.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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