Unbuilding a Barn

In a victory of wood over steel, a rural New Hampshire fixture makes its way to a Massachusetts island haven

LEE WATERMAN was delighted. About 30 men and women were crawling all over her 88-year-old dairy barn on Swiftwater Road in Woodsville, N.H. and deconstructing it. The whole barn. Piece by piece.

And 220 miles away, near West Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, the barn's recycled destiny is to be born again as the new centerpiece of the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society Fair, an event held annually on the island since 1859.

``This is sort of a triumph of wood over steel,'' says Rick Anderson, a Martha's Vineyard builder who coordinated the volunteer effort to relocate the barn. The annual fair had grown so much that the officers of the Agricultural Society recently approved a new, modern steel building for the agricultural exhibits of the fair. The old two-story wooden building that had served the fair for many years was simply too small and unsafe.

``A lot of people didn't think a new steel building was in character,'' says Jeff Thompson, a volunteer from Martha's Vineyard. ``So the community spoke up.'' A petition was circulated. More than 700 people signed it. ``Give us wood, not steel,'' they said. ``Give us tradition, not convenience.''

When Mr. Anderson, a professional barn recycler, and Andrew Woodruff from the Vineyard saw Mrs. Waterman's barn, they knew this was the barn for the fair. ``The integrity of the building was impressive,'' Anderson says.

Built in 1905 by a man named Butler, the sturdy post-and-beam diary barn housed 60 cows in its heyday. It survived the big hurricane of 1938, and not a beam or joist from stem to stern had sagged over the years. The barn is about 130 feet long and 36 feet high.

Waterman sold the barn to the Agricultural Society for the bargain price of $6,000. ``I'm so happy it will have a new life,'' she says as she watches the shingles and aluminum sheeting coming off the roof. ``Much of it was hand-hewn.''

Anderson and Mr. Woodruff coordinated the all-volunteer effort to move the barn. Offers and letters of support poured in from farmers, carpenters, electricians, landscapers, and others. Those who couldn't travel to Woodsville to take the barn apart said they would be there for the barn raising on the Vineyard, even though the date hasn't been set yet.

``Martha's Vineyard is a tight community,'' Woodruff says, pointing to the volunteers removing the sides of the barn and pulling out nails. ``These people are taking off work to come here,'' he says, ``and John Keene has four of his trucks here ready to haul the pieces back to the Vineyard.''

``This is a lifetime opportunity,'' says Mr. Keene, who does construction on the Vineyard, ``I wouldn't miss this for anything.'' Most of the volunteers stayed in a local motel courtesy of the Agricultural Society.

Patty Egan, a carpenter and waitress on the Vineyard, volunteered because she wanted to have a building at the fair ``that didn't look like it belonged in a shopping mall someplace,'' she says. ``It's also personally satisfying to be part of this.''

Driving a pickup truck, local dairy farmer Paul Castello stops to watch the work on the barn. ``There used to be 10 dairy farms along this road,'' he says, ``and now there's only three. You can't build a barn like this any more, with the hay [loft] on the top floor. Insurance would cost too much. I'm sure glad it's getting a new life. It was the best barn around here.''

The volunteers arrived on a Wednesday and had the barn down and loaded on the trucks in a little more than five days. Cost? ``If it hadn't been for the volunteers and support services,'' Anderson says, ``I'd say it would have been about $40,000. But now it looks like it'll cost about half of that. And the best part will be the day we raise it again on the Vineyard.''

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