A Traditional Timber Frame Horse Barn Raising in the Twenty-First Century
by Arthur Bolduc of Howard, Ohio
photos by Jim McBride
One hundred years ago (1905) Henry Ford put his first automobile on the road, and after WWI he started building farm tractors in earnest. He wanted to be a hero, to perhaps make everybody’s life easier, and to certainly get rich himself. But he didn’t foresee some of the problems his inventions would create; the Plain Folks did.
The Amish, and for a time, the Mennonites and a few others saw the automobile and the tractor as a threat to their way of life. The automobile cost money to buy, to run and to maintain. All money drained out of the farm community. It allowed quick transportation to the nearest city with its bright lights and cheap entertainment. People were seduced into buying gimcrack they didn’t need, and couldn’t afford on loose but enticing credit that was expensive. They bypassed the local farm community merchants, and more money was lost from the local economy.
The Plain Folks lived in communities no more than a half-day’s buggy ride in areas. They had their bulk food stores, shops and cottage industries, all the necessities of life right there in the community. They worshipped Christ, and their church was an assembly of their community members, not an ostentatious building. They held Sunday services on the farms, in their homes.
Their horse-drawn buggies were ample, inexpensive transportation even after the automobile became popular and replaced most horses on the streets and roads. The Plain Folks farmed with horses, that limited the size of their farms to about eighty tillable acres, enough to support a family and about the limit to what they could properly care for with horses. Limiting the size of a farm encouraged good husbandry, a sustainable form of agriculture and also discouraged greed. Horses lived on homegrown feed and replaced themselves at little expense and often a profit to the owner.
There is a limit to how much work a horse can do before it has to be rested. A farm boy knows that and knows what is expected of him when he is sent out to the field with a team. The tractor changed all of that. When a farmer put his son on a tractor that only needed to be stopped for refueling, the kid never knew when he was going to get off or when the work would end. Since tractors were expensive and didn’t make money sitting under the shed, and the kid was just steering, going for a joy ride and not doing a lot of physical work, and the old man let the good times roll! With headlights, they could work far into the night, and a lot of people got injured or killed doing just that.
Yes, there was practically no end to the acreage a farmer with a family could work with a tractor or two or three, and the greed they could generate. Tractor farmers suddenly started looking to buy out neighbors in trouble instead of helping them.
Driven by a tireless machine instead of the 3 mph pace of the horse, a lot of farm boys burned out and started looking for jobs in town. That was okay with the old man. There were plenty of migrant farm laborers driven off their land in Mexico by U.S. corporations who could grow corn and beans cheaper than the local farmers. Unfortunately the displaced farmers had no money with which to buy the corn and beans (that were grown for U.S. industry anyhow) and joined the migrant farm labor army streaming north of the border looking for any work they could find. Unlike the farmer’s son, the migrant laborers could be turned back on the road when there was no work and they were no expense to the farmer.
The Plain Folks answer to a higher authority than the almighty dollar. Their simple Christian lifestyles are based on home economics and they practice a sustainable economy driven by community cooperation rather than avarice competition.
Family is central in their lives, and community is a group of extended families. What is good for the community is usually good for the individual families, and they learn to ask, “what is good for my community?” They keep their buggy horses for short haul transportation, their draft horses for farm power, and their kids at home on the farm in multi-generation households.
In the twenties and thirties when the electric lines started reaching to the farms, the Plain Folks took a good look at the destruction strip mining was wrecking on the countryside in order to feed the coal fired electric generating plants that polluted the air we breathed and they decided they wanted no part of rural electric. Neither did they want the intrusive radio and later television programmed to shape the buying habits of the consumer-crazed nation. The invasive telephones stayed outside in phone booths where they belonged, and meals are never interrupted by tele-marketers.
In their communities of haves without have-nots and very little expensive police presence, the children working alongside their parents and extended family grow into strong, healthy citizens. By the time the boys are eighteen they are experienced farmers, teamsters, carpenters and have a good knowledge of several other trades. With good social skills, work habits, and ethics, they are very employable, but prefer to be self-employed in their own communities.
They realize their labor is one of their most valuable, sustainable resources, and they make the most of it. With community cooperation, they build their own homes, barns and other buildings.
When one of my neighbors needed a new barn, I thought it would be a pole barn, or even a hoop house. Not so. Bank barns have been around for centuries and they still meet the needs of the horse farmer, and that is what Danny built. He was thinking of what he would hand on to the next generation.
A small bulldozer was brought in to excavate the side of the hill for the foundation. And while the barn foundation was going up, a crew nearby was cutting the timber frame for the barn. I was there September 3, 4, & 5th, 1994 when Rudy Christian and the Timber Framers Guild of America raised the frame for the new barn at Malabar Farm in one of the last great barn raisings of the Twentieth Century. I examined the work closely that was going into Danny’s barn and it was on a par with best work of the Timber Framers of North America at Malabar.
On a misty July morning, with a lot less fanfare than the Great Barn raising at Malabar, Danny’s literally countless relatives and neighbors swarmed over the capped barn foundation. Any ideas I had about lending a hand was soon forgotten, and I retreated a couple of hundred yards to where Jim McBride was setting up a tri-pod for his camera with a long lens.
With so many workers, I was sure that chaos was going reign before they ever got started, and people were going to get hurt. From my, be helpful and stay out of the way, perch on the hill, I couldn’t tell who was in charge, where they broke up into work teams, or how the crew was organized. Labor, especially skilled-labor, is at a premium on all construction sites. Only in the Navy Sea Bees did I ever see more help standing around than they could efficiently use. And even there, there was a division of labor, everybody had their specialty and didn’t go on until it was their stage of construction. Here it was like a beehive with too many fuzzy cheeked teen-agers who couldn’t possibly be experienced enough to be of much help. But work was being accomplished; bents, end walls and partitions were being assembled like magic and raised into place with well-coordinated, effortless ease and precision. No tempers were flaring, no egomaniacs were trying to steal the show, and there was not the usual ten percent doing ninety percent of the work.
I focused on individuals, I tried to find the gold bricks; I couldn’t. Nobody was killing himself, they couldn’t, everybody was paying attention and turning to. I saw teen-agers, probably no more than fourteen, taking instructions, queuing on the older more experienced workers and before the day was over they had learned a lot.
From the time they can walk, Amish children are with their working parents in the home and on the farm. They are encouraged to help and they fail a lot. The failures and the unsuccessful attempts don’t count, they are just practice, it’s the little successes that are celebrated. The children love the sense of achievement, the praise from parents and older siblings. They grow up bold and confident, and it showed at the barn raising.
There are no people in their world trying to protect turf, to discourage them for fear of them taking their jobs. There is more work to be done in this world than we can accomplish. Their problem is distinguishing what is worthwhile and what isn’t. They also learn to ask, “What good will come of this?”, and they get answers.
An M.D. who came to watch the barn raising admitted that he carried a lot more than just a black bag (if he owned one) in the back of his stationwagon that morning, but was grateful his services were not needed.
By mid-afternoon, most of the workers were picking up their tools, and the youngsters were busy cleaning up around the job site. There were a few pieces of hardware to be installed, and some trim painting to be done, but that would have to wait until drier weather. I felt that I had witnessed a miracle, at least a victory for the human spirit.
Without power tools*, these farm community neighbors had raised a barn in less than a day and had enjoyed every minute of it. A solid timber frame barn on a solid foundation, that if properly cared for will last at least the three hundred years that Amish built barns have stood in Pennsylvania.
*An ironic note to this story is that Danny’s father, Bill Hostetler, ran a community hardware store on the home farm. Here, six miles from the nearest village with a hardware store, it saved those of us in the Nunda community a lot of running around when a bolt or such broke. A little price shopping revealed he wasn’t charging the markup that some of the hardware chains were. But with the boys running the farm and his own woodworking shop in the hardware building, he was happy, and we appreciated it.
However, when his supplier was bought out by a large corporation, they gave Bill a minimum figure in dollars that he had to buy before they would ship to him. Since he was non-electric and didn’t buy power-tools and other electric items, he couldn’t possibly meet their demands and had to close the hardware business last week.