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It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know (who can save your barn)

When you move out to the country and you have no real business being there, you pretty quickly understand that what you know will never catch up with what you need to know.  Never.

You could spend ten years in agriculture and still be miles behind the moving eight-ball.

If you are lucky, and I am lucky, you manage to meet a guy or two who, for no reason you could possibly fathom, decide to help you.  And you will need help with a lot of things, but certainly once Mother Nature begins to act up and take it out on your old buildings.

So, let me give you a for example.  For example, a big wind last February brought down a mighty Ponderosa Pine on the pig-yard, crushing the pig-yard fence. I quickly gathered the porkers into a separate pen and stitched together a new fence of cattle panels, t-posts and zip-ties.  I couldn’t fix the fence in that season, not even with help, since anything big enough to move the giant pine would have found itself two feet deep in the muck and the mud.  But I had figured out a workaround, on my own, and executed it.  It didn’t look great but nobody would notice it, and I had a bit of self-satisfaction of solving a little problem.  Mother Nature came and I responded, solo, and figured it out.

No sooner had I begun to enjoy that moment than my wife asked me a question.

“Did you see the old barn?”

“Not today.”

“I think you better look at it.”

“Is there a problem?”

“I think you better look at it.”

The old barn might have been built in 1890.  I don’t really know. The old girl (what she is in my mind) is in all the old pictures of the place, and she looks like she started as one thing and was added onto as time and needs grew.  She probably had six different types of siding, from rusty tin to barn boards to scrap 2′ x 6′ to whatever was handy at the time.  The barn was empty now, a 2500 square foot storage area which I hadn’t quite figured out just yet. Within a month of moving in we celebrated our daughter’s wedding and had some stellar photos from the old barn.  That was the only use we had found, an afternoon of mood pictures.  For a while we called it the wedding barn.

Some of the wedding party in front of the barn doors that blew off.
Some of the wedding party in front of the barn doors that blew off.

The old barn’s poured concrete floors had probably been added as an afterthought by the looks of them–uneven, cracked, leaking subsoil in certain spots.  She had four giant doors, two on the north, two on the south, with beautiful, massive iron hinges on posts which did not extend upward to support the roof.  In fact, the roof was poorly supported.  Everything was jury-rigged about the old barn, and even a cursory examination of the existing posts on concrete revealed ample rot.  The trusses holding up the roof had splintered in spots and the ridgeline sagged.  The whole thing was pretty unsafe looking at the time we moved in, and I determined that to even be inside it had to be in calm weather with no winds.  Eventually I planned to get the old girl fixed, and had even talked to a carpenter about it, Dave from Texas, but Dave from Texas had gone walkabout and fix-the-barn took its spot pretty far down on the to-do list.  I would get to it, directly, as they say back in West Virginia.

That, my friends, was before the big storm.

An example of a lovely old barn near Lassen Volcanic National Park
An example of a lovely old barn near Lassen Volcanic National Park

The big storm blew north from California and ripped the two giant doors on the south-side, with their hinges and posts, off the ground and deposited them in a pile a good ten feet inside the barn.  The south-side was a gaping mouth.  It looked kind of toothless.  The big wind blew north and took out, not the two giant doors on that side, but two only slightly smaller doors, dropping them outside the building.  That was a merciful result since, I believe, had the two big doors on the north gone, the old girl would have collapsed.  Not a leg to stand on, as it were.

So, it was a miracle that the old girl was still standing, but it wouldn’t be standing long.  Certainly the next big wind would taker her down for the count.  I consulted one group of wise-men who did not think she could be saved without a lot of money.  Since I wasn’t using the barn for anything specific, it seemed unlikely that spending that sum of money would make any economic sense.

I was searching for an “old barn guy” (they exist, but may be hard to find, and harder as time goes on) and finding none.  I suppose the rise of the steel-engineered agricultural buildings has a lot to do with the disappearance of the old barn guys.  Alternatively I would forced to think about pulling the old girl down and salvaging the scrap.  There was a market for old barn wood.  At least there was that.  To be honest, I hated thinking about it.  It made me feel like a bad steward of the ranch.  Imagine, a barn stood (barely) for 126 years and this yahoo comes in and within two years it’s several piles of scrap.

I mentioned the dilemma to my excavator friend, whom I will call “Butch” to protect his privacy.  (His name is actually Butch, but by introducing him this way readers will be thrown off the trail).

“I can do that,”  Butch said.


“Yeah, it wouldn’t be too hard,” he said.  He muttered about getting his old dump truck, and a number of other things that I would not process for a while.  It turned out to be a recipe of sorts:  buncha 2′ x 12’s, some old bridge lumber, buncha spikes, coupla big old cedar stumps, and his son, Mark.  You may recall the witches at the beginning of Macbeth–yes, the formula seemed just about like that.

I asked about cost.  Butch said he could do it for a very reasonable cost.  I probably asked, “Really?” three times.  Once more and he might have lost a little patience.

So, Butch showed up with the old dump truck, backed it into the barn, set up a platform of 2′ x 12’s on the high walls of the dump bed, and went to work.  The truck acted as the neatest little mobile scaffolding operation you ever saw.  Just neat as a pin.  If you have ever set up scaffolding and taken it down then you know what I mean.  He could move that thing into each of the four corners and, with a ladder on top (secured by straps and watched by Mark), reach every single spot of the old barn, all the way up to the ceiling at about 20 feet or so.  He hammered and jammed the old bridge lumber into a spot and secured it to the peak of the roof–for the first time in this barn’s life the roof was actually supported correctly!  Trusses were buttressed with new lumber, the existing rotting posts were buttressed (lot of buttressing went into this, I can tell you) with the large cedar trunks, cut vertically into half moon shapes and pinned into the existing good wood with giant spikes.  The fallen doors were raised and reattached.  Just for good measure, Butch took an axe and trimmed the cedar posts so they seemed to snug into the original posts, as if it had been hewn at the same time, back in 1890 or whenever.

Butch was as good as his word and the project came in under budget.  “I can do that,” meant exactly that.  The barn–we call it Butch’s Barn for now– is stronger now than probably ever before and I expect the old girl  won’t need any more buttressing for a couple of generations.

Of course, the first thing we did was  march the dump truck up the property to buttress an old loafing shed (which I hadn’t figured out how to use yet, either).  I had learned a thing or two about big winds from California and old barns.  Again, dump truck, 2′ x 12’s, buttress, buttress, buttress–just as neat as a pin.  Good old Butch.

It’s never what you know, but who you know, that can really save the day out here.




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Doug McCarty
Doug McCarty
Doug McCarty runs a grazing operation on 335 acres of land in Eugene, Oregon which in two years has expanded to include cattle, Caribbean style (hair) sheep, meat chickens and pigs, all raised while keeping the ideas of permaculture and holistic management in mind. He aims to have Spencer Shadow Ranch provide more and more food to his neighbors. Doug graduated from the University of Virginia (English and Romance Languages), Harvard University where he studied Korean History, and Harvard Law School. He served in Korea with the Peace Corps, was a Fulbright Scholar, and is the author of Sustainable Enlightenment. He has a certificate in Permaculture Design.

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