“I want to save every barn I possibly can,” says John High from his home in Lancaster County, Pa.
At dawn each weekday, High climbs into his battered pickup truck, driving to sites from one to three hours from home to take apart barns piece by piece, saving them from landfills and bulldozers, burn piles and burial. “There are so many torn down because I didn’t get to them in time,” he says.
High’s work points up a sad fact—the American barn is an endangered species. In 1920, there were more than 6.5 million barns in the United States; now the number is less than half that. Victims of decay, fire, collapse, bulldozers, and suburban sprawl, barns are no longer a taken-for-granted part of the American landscape. Many children have never seen a barn, except in books or on television. But a few people are striving to preserve a part of Americana that for more than 200 years has stood for harvest, hard work, and the American spirit.
In 1990, High left his job at an excavating company—where he bulldozed old houses and barns to make room for developments—and began The Barn Saver Project, rescuing the buildings he’d always hated destroying. Starting with an 1880s vintage bank barn (built into a hillside), he began taking old structures apart, board by board, saving the flooring, siding, windows, doors, roofing, beams, joists, hardware, and even the contents—from lightning rods to pig troughs.
“Everything,” High says. “I save everything. There’s value in every piece.”
For barns that will be reset elsewhere, he carefully preserves the integrity of the buildings by drawing blueprints and using them to number each piece of wood. The barns live on. One of the barns taken down by High—a log structure—is currently in storage at Valley Forge National Historic Park in Pennsylvania, where it will be set up as part of the park’s museum. Other Pennsylvania barns have traveled as far as California and North Carolina.
“Pennsylvania barns are living on in North Carolina,” says Wayne Yonce of Franklin, N.C., who has purchased barns from High and reset them in his home state. One of the barns is used for storage at a golf course; others are being used on working farms.
“It’s a good feeling to know I’m preserving part of our heritage,” High says. “These barns belong not only to our past, but to our future.”
High’s Barn Saver Project strives to lessen the environmental effects of deconstruction. Using mostly crowbars, hammers, and his hands (“I take them down in the opposite direction from which they were built, top to bottom.”), he not only saves barns with old-fashioned elbow grease—rather than swinging a wrecking ball and operating a bulldozer—but by saving barns, he’s saving landfill space. His methods also preserve air quality and land from being damaged by careless demolition.
Not all barns are rebuilt. “It’s amazing how many different people use materials from my jobs,” High says.
He’s donated material to school plays, churches, Scout groups, and other community organizations. In 1999, he donated the wood used by artist Barry Hoch to build a new manger and stable for the old Nativity scene in Nazareth, Pa.
High also is concerned with the protection of wildlife on or near job sites. He removes birds’ nests from houses and barns about to be deconstructed, carefully moving them to nearby trees where eggs have successfully hatched. He’s also contacted beekeepers to bring down hives from barns ready for dismantling.
In the 10 years High and The Barn Saver Project have been in operation, more than 200 barns and houses (and their contents) have been kept alive. One of those was the barn, whose parts, at least, were saved, of Kathy and Yogi Bayer.
“The barn removal was a great experience to watch step by step,” Kathy says. “The work involved in dismantling is nothing we would ever have known if we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes. They made memories for us to share with others for years to come.”
To document those memories, Kathy and her husband made a scrapbook, with step-by-step photos of the disassembling process.
“Our barn now lives on, all over Pennsylvania, in living rooms and rec rooms and kitchens,” Kathy says.
The Barn Saver Project is in the process of expansion, and High is looking for a barn that can serve as an “Art Barn,” with artists crafting from saved materials. The Art Barn also hopes to offer works of art from The Dumpster Divers, a group of Philadelphia artists working with recycled materials. Art classes for children will be available, featuring art made with recycled and reused objects.
But that’s in the future and the heart of High’s work still is saving barns that otherwise would be lost. “It’s rewarding,” he says. “As the old saying goes, ‘They don’t build them like they used to.’ Houses today are put together with toothpicks.”
High has two large scars on his face, both barn-inflicted injuries. One is the result of an almost-fatal fall, 30 years ago, from the rafters of his uncle’s barn; the other a recent injury received while barn saving.
“It’s crazy,” High admits. “But I love it.”
High is not the only one who loves barn-saving. He’s not even the only “Barn Saver.” Vince Kuharic’s Barnsavers is a New Hampshire company dedicated to the preservation of that state’s barns.
“We just plain love old stuff,” Kuharic says. “Nothing pleases us more than when we relocate and reset a barn, and it looks as if it’s stood in that spot for 200 years.”
Dale Lehmer, president of Vintage Barns, Woods, and Restorations in Kingston, N.Y., is one of the founding fathers of the barn-saving movement. Beginning in the 1970s, Lehmer, now boasting more than 30 years of experience, reflects on the charm of recycled building materials.
“Older woods provide a tighter grain, meaning harder wood,” he says. “Like treasures from ages past, the wood is of a quality that just can’t be found today. This is wood that captures the imagination.”
Barn savers are popping up all over America, such as BCR Barn Dismantling in Wisconsin and The Barn People in Vermont. Ohio has Barnstormers; Illinois, Barnbusters. Pennsylvania barn recyclers include 18th Century Restorations, Hometown Carpentry, and Rockwood Antique Timber Framing.
“Antique timber framing is an ancient art that is preferred by those planning a distinctive home, addition, or floor,” says Brad Smith, owner of Rockwood Antique Timber Framing in Brandamore, Pa. “It’s also the most environmentally friendly.”
Jim Slabonik, owner of Hometown Carpentry in Boyertown, Pa., is a jack-of-all-barn-trades.
“There’s no part of a barn structure that my company can’t service,” says Slabonik, who specializes in reconstruction, restoration, and timber framing, as well as dismantling.
And then there’s Barn Again!, a national program that provides information to help owners of historic barns rehabilitate them and put the structures back to productive use. Sponsored by the National Trust for Historical Preservation, Successful Farming magazine, and Chevy Truck, the program hosts workshops and exhibits, offers a website for barn lovers (www.barnagain.org), and presents annual awards for the best examples of barns rehabilitated for continued farming use.
The race is on to preserve the American barn, and people like John High and others are working to win the race.