Shoring Up the Future Of Vermont's Old Barns

Preservationists and farmers work to restore the structures that attract tourists and revenue to the picturesque state

OLD barns are as much a part of the scenery of Vermont as ranches are to the panorama of the West. Drive along almost any road in the fertile valleys of the Green Mountain State and around nearly every bend stands a red-shingled or weathered-brown building.

But at 100 years to more than 200 years old, many of these barns are deteriorating: Age, weather, and insect damage have caused walls to teeter, roofs to sag and leak, and foundations to collapse. Faced with the continuing loss of what it considers part of its heritage, Vermont has stepped up efforts to preserve old farm buildings in the last few years.

``Barns are an important part of the landscape of the state,'' says Thomas Visser, interim director of the University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program and professor of a barn-preservation course. Barns play a large role in generating tourism, which in turn helps the rural economy, Mr. Visser says.

Barns in the spotlight

Vermont is just one of many states that are paying more attention to the fate and future of the country's old barns, says Mary Humstone, assistant director of the mountains/plains regional office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Denver.

She attributes part of the heightened awareness to Barn Again!, a program the Trust and Successful Farming magazine started in 1987 to help farmers rehabilitate historic barns for new uses. Each year Barn Again! gives awards to the best examples of barns that have been preserved.

``I've seen a real change in attitude,'' Ms. Humstone says. ``When we first started ... people said, `Those are nice old buildings, but there's no hope for them.' Now people talk about ways they can be adapted and preserved.''

In Vermont, the preservation effort has taken several forms. In 1992, the state legislature became the first to finance a barn-preservation program. That year it allocated $40,000, received 56 applications, and awarded six grants. In 1993, 82 people applied for grants totaling $75,000; this year the program has been cut to $50,000. Anyone - farmer or nonfarmer - who owns a barn can apply if the building is either listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mary Jo Llewellyn, historic-preservation grants manager at the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, acknowledges that the program is small scale, but adds it is generating interest from other states as well as from Canada. ``The problem is convincing legislatures to spend the money,'' Ms. Llewellyn says.

Outside of state support, two other programs are helping people save agricultural buildings. One is a Vermont Barn Again! program modeled after the national one. In addition, a nonprofit organization called the Preservation Trust of Vermont offers barn owners technical-assistance grants. Owners get $500 worth of consulting expertise, and help in identifying the needs and planning the preservation of their barns.

Slow decay

``People come to Vermont to see white churches and barns,'' Llewellyn says. ``If we continue to lose these buildings at the rate we're losing them, [Vermont] is going to change dramatically.''

No state organization keeps track of how many old barns dot the hills and valleys of Vermont or the rate at which they are disappearing. ``I am more accustomed to watching them slowly fall down'' because the owners can't afford repair costs, Llewellyn says.

But the message Llewellyn, Visser, and others hope to spread is that it often requires a minimal amount of money to preserve a barn. ``A small investment - maybe $1,000 - can have a large impact,'' Visser says, adding that many of these old farm buildings are still being used.

Shoreham dairy farmer Randy Brisson is practicing the small-investment philosophy. Mr. Brisson, whose family has farmed in the Champlain Valley for generations, has fixed his own old barns and those of his neighbors by using a few simple techniques.

Simple restoration methods

One example is a small red field barn that belongs to a neighbor. Nestled behind patches of purple wildflowers off a dirt road, the 200-year-old building was close to becoming completely unusable. The posts had slipped off their pilings, and continued snow loads were expected to cause the roof to collapse. Brisson spent about 10 hours and $100 jacking the posts back on their pilings and then installing wire cables from one wall to another to keep the posts stable.

The barn, which is used for storage of a tractor and other items, is now expected to last indefinitely, as long as the roof remains intact.

``Perfection is not the rule,'' says Brisson, who has fixed about 10 barns since 1987. ``You just need to keep them economically viable for plain, simple storage space, which is what most of these barns are only good for anyhow. You fix them any way you can.''

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