The barns of Madison County

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Little did I know the tradition of raising a “one-day” dairy barn is what I needed right now, as it speaks to that beautiful process of humans actually working equally together to build community.

For a country boy, especially this one, getting another invitation to an old-fashioned barn raising is about as exhilarating as they come. The chance to become part of my friend’s history, and revive for one day my ancestors’ heritage, is emotion-stirring.

Lifting the first ash hammer beam at an Amish barn raising. Photos by Troy Bishopp

Old-fashioned seems kind of tongue-in-cheek, given that Plain communities in our region build these traditional timber-framed and custom designed buildings pretty regularly, just like our forefathers did. This style of building just adds to the local diversity of stick-built, pre-fab or pole barn construction practices already in place.

Why the fascination with a barn raising? For me, as the Englishman with barn-building roots who just shows up with a strong back, simple tools and humble mind, I marvel at the sheer vision, planning and prep work of harvesting, milling and aggregating all the rough-cut wood components for a particular build. I learned that the beams for this project were made from the farm’s own ash trees and the white pine and larch were cut and milled locally. For most raisings there has also been considerable foundation work already prepared for the dairy barn to sit on. And then there’s the logistics…

To say it’s just a barn raising is to diminish the poetry of the deed. Witnessing the majestic rising of the first bent amongst the hundreds of community members of all ages from near and far, knowing the barn will be done by nightfall, is an experience that takes my breath away. There is this deep, intrinsic quality that resonates whereby everyone finds their niche in the construction process. It’s like square-dancing – you just find your rhythm as the calling unfolds.

Once the first bent is set and plumbed, more bents, beams and knee braces are joined with wooden pegs while joists, rafters, purlins and roofing are placed and the puzzle pieces start to choreograph together. For myself, as a cog in the construction wheel, I worked with the church community’s bishop on cutting roof purlins. It was pleasantly mentioned “that having two Bishops working together on a site was a divine event.”

With the barn half done by noon, it was time for the next stanza of a traditional barn raising – lunch. This is a time to celebrate the bounty of our own food together as one body of neighbors and give thanks to Jesus Christ and partake in the festival of fellowship.

Handcrafting a bent at a barn raising.

Storytelling abounds as stomachs fill and coffee is poured on this glorious October day. The spiritual pause refreshes the mind, body and soul as the host farm appreciates everyone’s effort.

Seamlessly the work starts again but this time I’m handing up hundreds of roofing boards to the young lads wielding battery-powered nail guns and eventually transition to hoisting up long sheets of steel roofing. In taking a break (because I need one at 58), I step back to marvel at the scale and symmetry of this hammer beam barn design.

My mind wanders and I get a bit choked up because I remember helping Nathan and Kristine get their start in our community with a few heifers and a dream many years ago. Now we’re all here together amongst their many children, grandchildren and a thriving church community on this iconic spot ready for another chapter in life. You might think it’s just a barn but it represents so much more. It’s a humbling experience.

By five o’clock, the majority of the work is completed and us farmers have to leave in buggies and trucks and tend to our own livestock at home. I can’t help but linger in my family’s 130-year-old timber-frame barn as I pull the four-wheeler out to move my cattle to greener pastures.

I can just imagine the hundreds of farmers that helped us get our start in agriculture. For me, this old barn stands as a testimony to life – predicated on a strong foundation, solid principles and a basic humility brought forth from our soil that lends itself to our legacy. I feel like a barn raising is one more example of caring people paying it forward to the next generations.

I sincerely believe we shape our barns, and afterwards, our old barns shape us.

by Troy Bishopp

A good day’s work.

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