02 / Introduction: Meet the Barn

Since I moved to this corner of rural Vermont, I have learned a few things. One of the most important things I have learned: If you don't need a barn, don't buy a house with a barn.

At first, I just thought of the barn as a picturesque addition to the property. Not to mention unlimited storage space! Although this land had been a dairy farm for some time in the past, it hadn't been a farm in decades. The barn was set up for housing cows. There was a kind of track system in the ceiling of the cellar that was used to move things like bales of hay around to feed the livestock. And a flat cement platform with a trough down the center seemed like a place to milk the cows. Perhaps. But those were just guesses. As I said, I am not a farmer. Simple garden beds are about all that I can manage, and even they can get away from me.

A few years ago I was chatting with Michael, my guide in the southern part of Namibia. After telling me his horrifying life story (both parents killed in the war in Angola, sent to Cuba as a child, etc.) he asked me about where I lived. When I mentioned it had once been a farm, he asked how much cattle I have.

"Oh, none," I replied.

"What – no cattle?! How on earth are you gonna get married, man?"

I have no cattle, but I do have a cattle barn. In my first few years here, I gradually learned that lots of people in the area and in the nearby town have some personal connection to this property. The first year I got the invoice from the man who plows my driveway in winter, in the address area it just said "Uncle's Farm."

At the same time, I started to notice that the barn was starting to have some problems. The cellar would fill with water every winter and spring, and then, as it drained, it eroded the ground on which sat two large stones that were serving as the footings for two of the posts supporting the floorboards of the main floor and the roof. The result was that these posts were sinking, and the part of the roof that they supported was starting to sag. This created openings in the slate roof, and water was leaking through.

I have heard that it takes only five years between a barn getting a hole in its roof to its complete collapse. And I had already squandered one or two of those years.

My parents taught me that nothing comes without responsibilities. I knew I had the responsibility for saving the barn. I certainly wasn't going to be the guy who allowed it to go to ruin. There were just too many local connections. I would be carelessly letting part of local history disappear.

And I grew to love the barn. I love its post-and-beam framing. I love the quirky – and sometimes mystifying – details in its construction. I like that it's still here when so many barns have disappeared, and how it fits so naturally in the landscape. Tearing it down, or letting it fall down, was not something I could live with.

So I had to save it.

A map of Dorset, Vermont from about 1850 shows four homes and a school on Bowen Hill Road (380 on the map.) There are no traces of the T. Daisy and M. Wetherby houses as shown on the map, although there is a house at the A. Bowen location. At the former Wetherby site there are several rough stone walls, but they don't look like house or barn foundations to me. They were probably made from rocks and stones cleared from the meadow at the site. New England fields are notoriously rocky.

A school was located on the corner of Bowen Hill Road and Mad Tom Road (117 on the map.) This would have been for Dorset School District 9. Several people have told me about this, and some have said that one can still find traces of the old building. I have never explored this. The area is thickly forested now.

The B. A. Rogers property is the approximate location of the house where I live, although the house shown on the map is on the opposite side of the road from my house. Some building foundations from the original house can be easily found, especially in early spring before leaves come out.

The structure I live in reportedly began life as a corncrib. There is little trace of that structure now, although the odd beam pokes through here and there in the oldest part of the house. Other parts were added later. And this is the side of the road where the current barn is located.

Above: Approximate locations for the T. Daisy house (left) and the M. Wetherby house (right) as shown on the 1850 map.

Above: The remaining foundations for the B. A. Rogers house, or possibly of an older barn.

The two abandoned house locations, as well as my house, are located in or next to meadows. The M. Wetherby meadow is now maintained by the owner of the house marked on the map as A. Bowen. I don't mow my meadow. I do mow a small patch of lawn immediately to the north of it, and the forest seems slowly to be encroaching on the rest. The meadow of the T. Daisy house is now state land, and while it has been colonized to some extent by tall weeds and brush, I don't know how the State plans to maintain it in the long run.

A large amount of farmland in New England has reverted to forest in the past century and a half. The opening passage in the document linked to below summarizes this transition.

After a regionwide two-century period of deforestation and agrarian expansion, the dramatic reduction in agriculture in New England during the past 150 years generated a wave of land-cover change. Forest cover increased from less than 30% to more than 75% in many regions. Despite supporting one of the densest human populations in the nation, New England is among the most heavily forested regions in the United States. The story of this remarkable landscape transformation is one of recovery of nature, the legacy of past events in the details of modern ecosystems, and opportunity matched by challenge for conservation.

From: New England's Forest Landscape (.PDF) at the Harvard Forest Library ➜

A few years ago, the Town was clearing brush and weeds from along the sides of Bowen Hill Road. There was an old stone wall running along the side of the road near where the Rogers house would have been. Rather than tearing it down, the Town rebuilt the wall a few feet back from the road, using the same stones. At the southern end of the wall was a very old lilac bush that barely flowered in the spring. Unfortunately, it was a casualty of the roadwork. My mother has told me that it was very common in the country to have a lilac bush either at the front gate or near the door to the house. I am planning to plant a new lilac bush near where the old one was when the weather is warm enough.

Above: Out with the old (left), in with the new (right)–or the new old.

And now it's time for . . .

Weird Tales from the Barn: The Cursed Hydrangea

All winter long during my first year on this property, I dreamed of planting a hydrangea bush. My grandmother had them, and I had seen their intense blue colors during summers on Cape Cod. That cobalt color was the color of summer for me. Now I finally had some land, so I could finally have my very own hydrangea. And I knew right where it would go – the perfect place was beside the barn and near a long stone that served as a kind of fence.

When it was safe to plant in the spring I started my adventure in horticulture. Of course, almost as soon as I had started to dig the hole for the plant, I hit a rock. This is typical in New England. It's full of rocks and stones of all sizes that were dropped when the ice made its hasty retreat at the end of the last ice age. Most of the stone walls you see are made from the rocks that were cleared from fields so the land could be plowed.

To paraphrase something someone once said about something completely different: "Man proposes, Vermont disposes."

I dug around the stone to see how big it was. Not too bad – about 3 x 2 feet. I dug under it as much as I could. I even used a garden hose with a narrow spray nozzle to undercut the stone as far as I could. I could get it to rock a bit, but I realized I wouldn't be able to lift it even if I got it loose.

Rope didn't help.

At this point most people would fill the hole back up and go to their Plan B. I didn't have a Plan B.

I finally thought to go up the road and talk to Big John, a neighbor. I described the situation, and he told me to go back to the house, and he would be along in a bit. A few minutes later I heard Big John crawling down the road at about 5 MPH on his tractor. And the tractor had a winch! Perfect. John drove around the barn to get to where the hydrangea was supposed to go. And he winched the thing out like it was a very loose tooth. While he was relocating the stone, I kept digging.

Immediately below where the stone had been there was an odd layer of ash. Had the barn burned down at some point and then rebuilt? It was in this layer of ash that I found a piece of cloth which, when disinterred, turned out to be a faded pillow case. It had originally been blue with a floral pattern. It seemed like a very old-fashioned pattern to me.

There was something inside.

A cat skeleton! Oh man, such baaaaaaad mojo! Had this feline been so malevolent that it had to be buried under a large stone to keep its ghost from wandering the land, spreading bad luck as it went? And the ash . . . the remains of some ritual meant to dispel evil spirits or something, or . . . what?

John and I agreed that the best thing would be to put the pillow case and its contents back in the hole, cover it with some dirt, and then plant the bush above that. Which I did.

It didn't die, as I suspected it might. But – strangely – it has never flourished.