History Expo highlights need to preserve Vermont’s old barns

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(Host) Old weathered barns are such a common sight in Vermont that we take for granted they’ll always be there. 

But over the years, they’ve been disappearing. 

This weekend, experts and enthusiasts will gather at the annual Vermont History Expo in Tunbridge to talk about preserving old barns … and organize a census to see how many are left.

Recently, VPR’s Steve Zind visited one of Vermont’s historic barns. 

(Zind)  There’s something awe-inspiring about a barn that’s 135 feet long, 45 feet wide, and four stories high.  It feels large enough to accommodate Noah and his menagerie. So large that measuring it in square feet doesn’t do it justice.  

(Ranz) "There’s a quarter of an acre just on this portion of the barn in terms of shingles (laughs)

(Zind)  Jennifer Ranz owns this big barn in Greensboro.  It’s no longer used for farming, but the cavernous structure once held a diary herd, horses, farm equipment and a long winter’s worth of hay. 

High overhead a shaft of sunlight angles in through a window.  Ranz calls the barn an agricultural cathedral.   

She bought it 18 years ago.  Fixing it up has been a labor of love – and money:  A never ending labor of love and money. The state has a modest grant program for barn restoration, but it provides just a small fraction of what a project like this costs.

Come along sound

(Zind)  The roof has been repaired and the foundation shored up.  Inside, old timbers are being replaced, using a come-along to lift the new ones into place.  Jan Lewandoski restores old barns like this one.  He says, each year more of Vermont’s barns succumb to time and the elements. 

(Lewandoski) "I don’t know how many barns we’ve lost.  I think in the last 25 or 30 years we’ve lost thousands of barns."

(Zind) The decline in agriculture is one reason old barns are disappearing.  Another is the modernization of farming.  Horses gave way to tractors, hay stored in the barn loft has been replaced by hay wrapped in plastic. The old barns simply didn’t suit farmers anymore.

Lewandoski says some of the earliest barns, from the late 18th and early 19th centuries are still around – built with the same tools he uses today in his restoration work.

Chisel and hammer sound

The barns were made from virgin timber that stood before most of Vermont’s land was cleared in the mid 1800s. Long, hand hewn beams were cut and chiseled from  native oak, chestnut, maple, and other species.

(Lewandoski)"I find them to be the most beautiful barns because they’re also the most handmade."

(Zind) So, why bother to save something that has lost much of its original purpose? Barns can be expensive to restore and time consuming to maintain.

(Lewandoski) "They’re beautiful, and they’re an important part of the landscape.  Many people like to come to Vermont, stay in inns, eat in restaurants, drive around because they can look at barns and farmland."

(Zind) The barn census is intended to catalogue not only the number, but the condition of these Vermont landmarks. But once they’re counted the challenge remains:  how to preserve them.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind. 

(Host)  There will be talks on the history and architecture of Vermont’s historic barns, and a workshop for volunteers for the barn census, Saturday at the Vermont History Expo. 

The Expo runs all weekend at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds.


AP Photo/Toby Talbot


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