A labor of logs

As small farm buildings succumb to age and neglect, their sturdy timbers find a new life.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
A storage shed in a new england backyard.

Whether it was the tortured screech of the nail or my accompanying satisfied grunt that Charlie most appreciated, I don't know. With his own hammer and pry bar poised above a neighboring two-by-four he chuckled and yelped into the snow-spangled air, "Oh, this is fun!"

In a sweat, despite the late November flurry, I paused to agree and sat back on my haunches for a rest from one of our seasonal labors – teasing out the salvageable remains of a once solid and functional little farm building.

We spot them as we travel about old back roads – empty and in various stages of neglect and disintegration, often half hidden in overgrown fields. They are the log and timber-frame barns, sheds, corncribs, and lean-tos, idiosyncratically styled from local timbers by a fading generation of small farmers. Once sturdy shelters for tools, hay, or livestock (and sites perhaps for the occasional rural tryst) they now stand or lean idle, having lost their purpose and protectors.

With small farms going out like lights across southern Indiana, there is less and less need for the handy outbuilding, and no one to patch roofs, nail back siding, shore up storm damage, and otherwise protect inner surfaces and seams from wind and rain. Whenever we can, we catch one on its way to ruin and finish the job quick and clean before decay claims everything.

"Ummm," Charlie breaks a companionable silence. "There's some good lumber left in that one."

I brake and look toward the shed he has spotted in the brambles and weeds. We call an absentee landowner – occasionally now, one calls us – and a deal is made. Late in the year, when the hay is in, the gardens spent, and time flowers, we pack hammers, pry bars, and cat's claws, sandwiches, gloves, and a thermos of hot honeyed tea for a day of dismantling.

Put off by the high price of materials, and by the stark unloveliness of today's all-metal pole barns, we turn again and again to the old, abandoned structures. We carry home swallow-friendly rafters, weather-grayed siding, timbers that ring with age and integrity. From a half fallen corncrib offered to us by a neighbor we lift five 24-foot logs, hand hewn from the trunks of Indiana's native tulip poplar. Only the ends are damaged, and years of gentle rubbings from cob and husk have polished the inner faces to a rosy-ochre sheen. When we light the lamps in the sugaring cabin we built with these renotched logs, they never fail to answer.

Each salvage brings us to new ground where old ways of life echo. As we poke about during breaks from the work we find under the trampled hay of one shed someone's long lost splitting wedge. In another is a jumble of heavy glass soda bottles, left by a carpenter especially fond of Dr Pepper.

An old friend passed away one year, having farmed into his 80s. His widow watched and visited with us as we dismantled a small outbuilding she could not use and wanted removed. It was a sturdy piece of work and tested our tools and mettle.

"Glen built to last," Charlie grunted to her quiet satisfaction.

We incorporated Glen's shed and several other structures into a 60-by-20-foot open-sided barn for our tractors, rake, baler, and extra hay storage. It is made entirely of recycled lumber and cost us almost nothing. We like how it blends with the other buildings on our place, looking as if it's been around for years – which in a way it has.

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