Building a Community, Building a Barn
by Donn Hewes of Marathon, NY
In 2010, 20 Amish families moved into our neighborhood and set about farming. They made friends with the locals, cleared brush from abandoned farms and started milking cows. Fifteen more families are expected next year, all from the same area of Pennsylvania, near Punxsutawney. Most of the summer you could see sawmills working, and small homes being built to augment the farm houses that had been bought. Milk dumping stations were built where three or four farmers could bring milk to be picked up. Two small schools were built.
Finally, in the fall it was barn raising season. Three barns were built in about two months. Other old barns are being renovated. Interestingly, this Amish community is committed to making loose hay, so all the new barns they built were large (90’ x 38’ average) and open, with tracks at the peak to handle this style of traditional hay making.
Each farmer poured concrete slabs and built their first floor with a little help from their neighbors. Most of these were half block or all block construction with heavy beams and floor joists meant to support a large hay mow above. When this work was done and all the wood for the rest of the barn was cut, planning could begin for a barn raising. Work for cutting, marking and building all the bents would start about two weeks before the actual date. Five to ten workers could cut and mark all the pieces of the barn in little more than a week. The tool of choice for most of the cutting is a chainsaw. Every purlin, box beam, and ridge board is marked for the rafter layout. The rafters are all marked for the 1 x 4 purlins every two feet, that serve as roofing nailers. Even the siding is marked so nails can be started on the ground before a board is passed up and hammered into place.
On the day of the barn raising a large bus would bring many friends and neighbors from Punxsutawney for the day. It was a great sight to see the Amish carpenters climb off the tour bus and pull their nail belts from the luggage area. At the two barn raisings I participated in there were easily a hundred people.
The lumber used in these barns was all soft wood and mostly hemlock. Most of the farms had a ready supply of standing timber for this purpose. The barn uses a truss design similar to the traditional bents of old style timber framing. Each bent (as the Amish refer to them) or truss has a couple of tension members that relieve the need for major beams that cross the barn floor holding the traditional timber frame together. These trusses make an excellent use of the soft wood resource, that would have been considered inferior lumber for the construction of the traditional heavy timber barn.
To the best of my knowledge all these barns are built without the need for detailed working drawings. The lead carpenter uses chalk lines on the finished mow floor to outline the structure to be built (the red lines in the drawing above), and describe the cutting of each piece that will be needed. From there most of the work is in their heads. There is a real advantage in using the chalk line method, as each barn may vary in width or length, but this is all accounted for when the lines are snapped and after the lines are down, the building methods, and sequence of parts is always the same. At first I suspected this combination of truss design and soft wood construct was a more recent innovation for the Amish community, but I have been told by one of the lead carpenters that this method of barn building goes back at least 50 years in their community.
One of the secrets of this barn building method is that the basic barn pattern is repeated without too much variation from farm to farm. When you climb up to help assemble the frame you realize that you can put the same nails in the same braces and beams at each station you come to. This is important so that 100 carpenters can work quickly, and if you have helped with a couple barns before you will understand the basic construction. I was one of the few non-Amish to climb on the first barn as it was being raised and I found out later that Jake, the lead carpenter and one of my new neighbors, was watching me to make sure I figured out what I was doing!
Most everyone had gathered by 8:30 on the day of the raising, and the first bent was already going up. By 10:30 all the bents were up, and rafters were going on. By the time we stopped for lunch almost half the roofing and siding was on. In the afternoon, while one group finished the roofing and siding, another built rolling doors and more folks finished a shed roof added to one end of the barn. By the time I headed for home and chores of my own around 4pm, all the roofing and siding were done and the ringing of hammers was slowly starting to fade.
One of the most striking aspects of this development is the strength and confidence that comes from this communal way of living. While it is impressive to build a barn in a day it seems even more impressive to imagine building four barns or six, and all the rest of the needs of a community. On my own farm there are many things I could build; a wind mill, a green house, a meat packing plant, but what will my community support? How will I know when to push ahead or when to conserve? What if the future is not like I expect it to be? For these young Amish families the vision of a shared agricultural community is strong, and clear. It is fun to watch.