Richmond’s Monitor Barn

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(Host) Vermont’s past and its present have been deeply influenced by our farming heritage. Commentator Tom Slayton has some thoughts on a particular barn that is very much a part of that heritage.

(Slayton) Think of an old barn as a piece of agricultural technology: to the observant eye, every barn tells a story of what it was designed to do, how it expressed the life of the farm of which it was the center – and the mind of the farmer who worked in it, day in and day out.

Today, I’m exploring one of the best-known barns in Vermont: the west Monitor Barn on Route 2 in Richmond. You can see this barn and its sister, another Monitor Barn, as you drive the Interstate between Montpelier and Burlington. What you can’t see from the Interstate is the beautiful craftsmanship that makes it a work of art – and the ingenious technology it expresses.

It’s a very big structure. Beams of solid wood more than a foot square support a heavy slate roof and four floors that rise like a light-filled cathedral above the stone foundation.

The barn’s technological partner was gravity. A high-drive ramp allowed hay from the fields along the Winooski River to be drawn by horse-and-wagon into the barn’s upper floors, where it was tucked away in mows throughout the summer. Then, during the long winter months, hay would be forked down to the 50 or 60 hungry cattle waiting on the main floor below.

The manure from those cows was then shoveled down into the very bottom of the barn, from which it would be extracted and drawn back out to be spread upon the same hay and corn fields that grew the feed in the first place.

With the help of the ingenious barn – and gravity – the cycle was completed every year, making the farm a self-sufficient unit that produced milk and an income for the farmer while using the land in a non-exploitive, natural fashion.

In its own way, the Monitor Barn was a masterpiece of earth technology, as well as an amazing piece of rural craftsmanship.

So when the monitor barns fell into disrepair, people who knew barns were concerned. Barns, like farmhouses, farm machinery, and other rural infrastructure, tell the real story of Vermont’s agricultural past in a way no history book ever could.

Unfortunately, barns are being lost all across Vermont – it’s estimated that about 1,000 barns annually are lost to decay and neglect. Every one of those barns has a story to tell; every one of them adds meaning to the landscape.

Fortunately, the magnificent west Monitor Barn will not be among the lost. It is being saved, thanks to some federal and state funding, a lot of local fundraising, and a partnership between the Richmond Land Trust and the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, which contributed sweat equity – their own hard work – to help restore the barn.

Eventually, the Youth Conservation Corps – young people learning work skills and life skills – will use the restored barn as their headquarters. If you stop and think about it, this is a project that unites the best of Vermont’s past and the key to its future.

The west monitor barn is being born again in this project – and so is a little bit of Vermont.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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