• U.S.

In New England: A Barn Is Reborn

5 minute read
Kenneth W. Banta

It is now 23 years since Richard Babcock first mounted his pickup truck to rescue a colonial barn in distress, snatching a comely example of Scottish extraction, circa 1710, from the jaws of damp rot in Lenox, Mass. After eight months he had tenderly transformed her timbers into a family home in New Marlboro, 18 miles south. Thus was ignited the peculiar passion that, 75 recyclings later, still drives the master builder. “I’m an evangelist, truth to tell,” he says. “Some men are called to save souls. I was called to save barns.”

This cool spring afternoon, the salvation site is suburban. One hundred yards from the Merritt Parkway, 1½ rush hours from Manhattan, the frame of a born-again Babcock barn climbs skyward in Fairfield, Conn. After eight years in their 200-year-old farmhouse, Advertising Executive Rick Baker and his wife Cathy called on Babcock to erect a colonial barn addition, which will hold a new living room and a cluster of bedrooms. They wanted more space, but they also wanted to respect the region’s history.

Naked of walls and roof, the frame of foot-thick oak timbers has the precise, angular grace of a Victorian railway bridge. It is bound by hand-hewn pegs to a 20-ft. by 30-ft. rectangle. Inside this architectonic web freshly spun along the rear of the Bakers’ blueberry-shingled farm house, Babcock, 50, in red plaid shirt and worn, blue work pants, ministers to a most ungraceful tangle of rope and wood.

A faithful reconstruction of a pre-Revolutionary crane, this Rube Goldberg device consists of an upright 30-ft. ash sapling, a block and tackle suspended from a fork at its apex, yards of thick manila rope woven through an assortment of pulleys and a stout ashwood capstan. Today it will raise the final gable, a 20-ft.-long triangle of beams on which roof boards will later rest. Babcock casually knots the free end of the rope around the beams, then signals his crew of four. Under their weight, the groaning capstan turns. The rope creaks. The beams refuse to budge. Babcock fiddles with pulleys, then applies a greasing of Ivory soap where rope meets capstan. “We call this making adjustments,” he says cheerfully. “Next, we pray.”

But this time, as the men throw their weight against the capstan arm, the rope tightens. Sweat and pine sap scent the air. Slowly, majestically, the triangle of oak swings skyward, hesitates, then settles gracefully on its mount 23 ft. above.

Around this frame of a 1690s French sheep barn, Babcock will build walls of pine siding and insulation and a shingled roof. Protected from the elements, the ancient timbers become an indoor exhibition. The entire project will cost $80,000–something of a bargain, Babcock reckons, for such historic shelter.

Good money might be made in this trade. But Babcock is not in barns for the sake of business; he is in business for the sake of barns. “They are our strongest link with the colonial past,” he says. “Preserving them, we preserve history; we preserve art.” And sometimes, the subjects of art. From her window, Grandma Moses painted the Bakers’ barn where it once stood in upstate New York, on land, it so happens, belonging to a Yankee Babcock forebear, six generations back.

From his dusty work yard in the northwest Massachusetts hamlet of Hancock (colonial, of course, incorporated in 1776), Babcock has mapped virtually every colonial barn standing, or collapsing, in New England. Racing against mildew and termites, he buys more barns than he can afford from farmers glad to be rid of debris. “It’s bad business, but I don’t know how to stop,” he explains without remorse. “I’m barn rich, cash poor.”

Now Babcock is crouching over one promising timber in the Baker backyard, like a detective on the trail of colonial history. His blunt fingers run over the surface, ivory with age, tracing arcs and circles cut 300 years ago. “They didn’t have rulers. They did everything by compass.” Another beam reveals a row of auger holes, evidence of a hayrack. “Too low for horses,” declares the Sherlock Holmes of barns. “Sheep, undoubtedly.”

It was Babcock’s grandfather, a builder himself, who taught Richard the secrets of colonial barns, chief among them the fact that they were designed to be recycled. “Gramps loved barns, so I did too,” he says. “Barns used to be family heirlooms. When you moved, you pulled the pegs and took them with you. The old builders would understand my work.”

On rafters of oak and white pine that predate the Constitution, Babcock reads colonial minidramas. He describes his discoveries with delight: stalls on worn threshing floors that mark a farmer’s shift from wheat to cattle; scrawled symbols on a rafter commemorating a son who moved his father’s barn; boards, sealing the huge doors of a cavernous Dutch barn, that reveal the date of its sale to a German, who then cut smaller doors.

Armed with family papers and genealogies, Babcock has tilted happily over weightier questions against colonial historians ignorant of the latest discoveries in barnography. “We found a 16th century French barn in Rensselaer County, N.Y., last year,” he says. “That’s a century before the experts say the place was settled. All they know is what they read. I know what I find. Barns always tell the truth.”

The drone of rush-hour traffic is spilling from the parkway. Nightfall approaches, and in the chill air Babcock slowly begins to pack his tools. “I must have given a hundred talks,” he remarks. “Each time I say the same thing: save the barns! People listen, but they don’t act.” On the Baker place, the sheep barn’s rectangular skeleton now glows softly, a spare Doric temple in the twilight. Babcock touches the smoothly hewn frame with a hammer-size hand. “Look how carefully they worked. They thought they were building for the future.” He brightens into a smile. “And today, we saved one. Gramps would be pleased.” –By Kenneth W. Banta

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