My grandparents’ barn wasn’t really my territory. It was dark inside and filled with cobwebs. The cows, in their stanchions twice a day at milking time, were formidable creatures. They ate hay at one end and made smelly messes at the other while the milking machines attached to their swollen udders vibrated and pumped.
It was here that my sweet grandfather and my gruff uncle spent much of their time. When I walked into the barn, Uncle Francis teased me. “Why aren’t you in school? Don’t you have anything to do?” He believed in hard work and demanded it from those around him, so, without a job to do I often felt out of place in the barn. I wanted to be like Fern in “Charlotte’s Web” – a girl who understood animals and loved being with pigs and spiders and rats – but I was a reader and preferred to sit in the farmhouse and read about barn life.
And there was so much life in my grandparents’ barn. Downstairs, below the haymow, the cows filled the air with their steamy breath. Cats and kittens surrounded pie tins of warm milk. The bull demanded attention. And spiders – none of them “Charlotte” – inhabited every nook and cranny. Upstairs, swallows and bats swooped through the rafters, and horses stood to be brushed in their stalls. The farmers dropped hay down to the cows through a big hole in the floor – a dangerous spot for children – but when we were allowed to, we played in the haymow, and on Easter Sunday our grandfather hid painted eggs in and around the dusty bales and stacks.
Unlike the house, the barn now seems totally gone. I can still see the house foundation, the well stone, the sidewalk, and the cellar door of the house, but there’s no trace of the barn on the Whirlwind Hill property. Any hole or stone it might have left behind is covered with dirt and grass. I have to guess at where it used to stand.
But, in truth, it isn’t totally gone, because in 1975 a young woodworker named George Senercia read a book that changed the course of his life and the fate of the Hall barn. The book was “Diary of an Early American Boy” by Eric Sloane, a New England artist who wrote and illustrated books about early American barns and tools. This book started George on a lifelong quest to learn and use and teach the process of building and restoring barns the way it was done in 18th and 19th century New England.
On Easter Sunday, 1977, while driving down Whirlwind Hill, George noticed the Hall barn, which by then was starting to deteriorate. My uncle stopped farming in the early 1970’s, and the barn was abandoned. George knocked on Francis’ door and offered to take the barn down and haul it away for free. When they came to an agreement, George dismantled, restored, and rebuilt the barn as his workshop in the nearby town of Northford, Connecticut.
In the course of the painstaking work of taking apart the barn, George found a beam into which my great-great-great grandfather Aaron Hall had carved his name and the date 1818. George became so interested in the history of the Hall family that he probably knows more about my relatives than I do.
So in 2008, when my parent’s barn was aging, my brother asked George if he would restore it. He agreed, and in August 2008, he began to take apart our barn. It took two years before the Crump barn was ready to be raised again. On Wednesday I’ll tell you about it.
On Wednesday: Barns – Part II