Farmstead restoration a labor of love

CORNWALL — “I don’t think Rodney was one to replace anything before its time,” says Gary Barnett, one of the owners, since 2006, of the old Robbins family farm in Cornwall.
Barnett and Louise Dion, a married couple from Santa Cruz, Calif., bought the property after Rodney Robbins died in 2004; they had a distant goal in mind. The house was originally built in 1816, and in the 100 years of his life, Rodney lived there for close to 40, choosing to leave many of the house’s oldest features untouched. For Dion and Barnett, this was the draw.
“We started lookin’ around down here and we found this place and we really liked it, we liked the barns, we liked the views, we liked the house,” says Barnett. “So many of the houses we’d looked at had been remodeled by either their current or previous owners. We were after more of the authentic.”
Dion has family in Concord, Mass., as well as Montreal and Quebec City; she passed through the Green Mountain State often growing up. Barnett had taken summer social ecology classes at Goddard College in the late ’70s with Richard Gottlieb “when some of the old radical folks were still up there and kinda doin’ that thing.” In 2005, Dion suggested a move from California, and the two began their search.
Barnett and Dion were drawn to Vermont not only for a deep sense of historicity absent in much of the billboarded country. They were after a positive feeling for what the future might look like as well.
Originally interested in the Northeast Kingdom, they liked the idea of living down a gravel road, few neighbors, wood-stoves and lush greenery, a life much more in line with how life was lived a hundred years ago. The sort of life, Barnett believes, that has much to instruct the present, as people seek a more sustainable way of living.
They found Cornwall by way of Middlebury College, where a cousin of Barnett’s was enrolled as a student. After hearing glowing reports of the surrounding landscape, Barnett and Dion made the trip themselves and were not disappointed. Their interest was fortified by Bill McKibben’s articles in publications such as National Geographic and Orion that called attention to the area’s pervasive environmental savvy.
The four-acre parcel of the former Robbins plot in Cornwall, situated right along Route 30, did not lack for heartening vistas, with the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondacks to the west. Having worked as a renewable energy consultant in California for more than 20 years, Barnett says, “I loved the orientation of the house, with a lot of glass on the south side. I knew it would get big solar gain because of that.”
Naturally, the 1816 home’s authenticity posed its challenges too.
“When we were looking at the house,” recalls Barnett, with a wincing smile, “one of the days when we came here, it was in February, and it was pouring down rain, one of those winter rains. And we were standing up in what was going to be the master bedroom and there was water pouring through the ceiling. So we were like, ‘Well. First thing we gotta do is fix the roof.’”
To achieve a meaningful connection to history some people read or write novels, some paint canvases in conversation with the past, some take part in a religious institution, and still others lose themselves in travel. For Barnett, that connectedness grows from his Herculean — and by-and-large solitary — nut-n-bolts project of rejuvenating the old Robbins home. It is a project equal parts renovation and restoration, looking forward and looking back.
While Barnett and Dion were slated to move to the house together in 2007, after Barnett was to have spent a summer making crucial fixes, their game plan changed when the recession hit. With the downturn, they decided it would be best for Dion to remain in Santa Cruz for another couple of years where she had long-standing employment as a civil engineer. Barnett, meanwhile, would buckle down and entrench himself in their dream project. With immersion in 2009, following three six-month stays over Vermont’s warmer months, came an appreciation for the property’s roots.
A plot along Robbins Road in Cornwall marks the original homestead, where Rodney’s grandfather raised cattle and sheep in the mid-19th century. The house nearby was built originally for the pastor of the Congregationalist Church, changing hands once or twice before it was assimilated into the Robbins family’s extensive tract covering over a hundred acres. Around 1870, a fire leveled the original homestead, and the Robbins patriarch and his family moved to the house Dion and Barnett now own. At and around this time, an addition was made, and several new barns went up immediately behind the house, set out in a cross-like arrangement.
Over the years, a schoolhouse from across the road was lifted up and moved adjacent to the barns. The Robbinses also repurposed a nearby granary, which today holds Rodney’s succession of old wood stoves, among other mechanical artifacts. Behind the barns runs a row of 100-foot-tall spruces that are said to date to the country’s centennial celebration in 1876, when seedlings were distributed to all visitors to the capitol, among whom might have numbered a Robbins or two. High up in one of the grown trees, Barnett discovered a perfect cradle for watching the sunset, with views of both mountain ranges.
From there, he can contemplate the assembly of the barns, four out of five of which still stand, the opening created by the one that has gone outlining a distinctive amphitheater. The oldest of those remaining, dating to the early 1800s, is a scribe-rule barn.
“All the beams are hand-hewn beams,” Barnett explains. “They made these scribe marks, they’re marriage marks, because no two pieces of wood were alike. Each piece fit in with the other piece. They were designated with Roman Numerals to show that they go together. And there’s huge old gunstock posts and big 9-by-14-inch hand-hewn beams that are just spectacular.”
With insight from such books as Thomas Durant Visser’s “Field Guide to New England Barns and Farm Buildings,” Barnett is able to envision the barn-raisings, wherein the community would gather together to link each post and tie beam, then stand the vent up until the next one along could likewise be poised and linked. That kind collective endeavor never fails to amaze him.
Rodney Robbins and Grace, his wife, had three daughters — Cynthia Aube, Esther Roundy and Joyce Stephens — the latter of whom still lives in a house a short walk away. “The sisters,” as Barnett calls them, grew up near the property and have been extremely helpful in unfolding the history of the house.
In one instance, Barnett found a tombstone facedown in the basement, positioned so as to hold a water heater up off the dirt floor. Mystified, he went to Cornwall Town Clerk Sue Johnson with a statement and a question.
“There’s a tombstone in my basement. There’s not a body to go with it, is there?” he asked her.
Returning from “the vaults,” Johnson was able to confirm that the stone’s subject, Salome Hurd, had indeed passed away in 1848. Where Hurd was to have been buried, though, the records did not say.
Enter Joyce, into whose family line Salome had long ago married. While she was as mystified as Barnett as to why the stone was there, she was able to determine by asking around that Salome had been buried at a Weybridge cemetery. Presumably, the stone was replaced at some point and the old one used for the heater mount.
On a more practical front, the Robbins sisters gave Barnett “a map of all the remodels that had been done to the house as far as they could recollect.” In this way, Barnett was able to locate “portals where doors used to be, holes where windows were, kind of pieced together how the house was originally laid out.”
Rodney Robbins moved in during 1960 after his father, whose residence it had been, passed on (Rodney himself died in 2004, age 100). True to Rodney’s penchant for conservation, much of the original woodwork, even that removed for altered doors or windows, was kept in the attic. There, Barnett found half a parlor door that had been sawed away to compensate for a buckle in the floor, as well as the windowpane, sashes and trim piece for a bay window removed to build a porch on the house’s southern side. With the porch in poor shape, one of Barnett’s first projects was to disassemble it and replace the bay, piece by piece. The parlor door soon followed.
Rodney Robbins’ last project, as far as Barnett can tell, was a renovation of the kitchen that appears in a ’70s style: plywood cabinets with Formica tops. No changes have been made inside since.
Until he was in his mid-80s, Robbins would pump water from a well across the street. Later in life, he decided to make a new one closer by and Barnett gets plenty of use out of that newer well, bringing in water all through the summer and winter, to keep himself and his two canine companions, Dakota and Maddie, fresh.
Under Barnett’s watch, extensive work has been done to the barns, primarily fortification of the roof rafters, roof-sheathing, roofing material, tie-beams and posts. With the skilled assistance of Eliot Lothrop of Building Heritage out of Huntington, Barnett got a start down the road to restoration of the barns. The state of Vermont also saw fit to provide matching funds for Barnett’s investment via its barn preservation grant program. Finally, Barnett has connected 200 amps of electricity to both the barn and the house. In Rodney’s time the house and barns made do on four 15-amp fuse circuits, or roughly a third of the electrical capacity.
To what use will that added barn power be put? Dion and Barnett’s vision is this: a seasonal artists’ residency, studio and concert space open to sculptors, painters, musicians and writers. While the couple may not have found their gravel road secluded from the flow of traffic, that could turn out to be an advantage, with the Route 30 location offering ready access to those willing to treat their senses to showings and concerts.
That amphitheater formed by the barns?
“I can kind of see from what’s left there, where that fifth barn used to be, that just forms this beautiful stage area, and so I can see music there, have people gather for a barbecue, entertainment, come see what the artists are doing, and just a place where community people and local artists could gather,” Barnett says.
On the restored barn roofs, there will be a photovoltaic array to capture solar energy. In the house, a few bedrooms where residents can sleep and in the haylofts, spaces where artists could work during the late spring, summer and early fall, with majestic views of the Adirondacks across the Champlain Valley.
Gary Barnett admits that even with close to three years of concentrated work accomplished, there is still a ways to go in realizing the completed vision. Part of it is cost and part scale. Spanning the continent, Dion and Barnett are planning out their labor of love bit by bit.
“I’ve got friends that come and help me on things,” says Barnett, referencing by name local roofer, author and musician, Billy Romp. “And I think in another year when the house has got most of the big stuff done to it, and we can start working on the barns, I’d like to think that certainly within five years and maybe sooner there’d be an artist out there for the summer.”
In the interim, Barnett has taken on a civic role as the energy coordinator for the town of Cornwall in addition to his work for the Acorn Renewable Energy Co-op, where he has a seat on the board. When Barnett is not visiting California, or Dion Vermont, the two talk on the phone, or Skype, once per day.
Barnett, an avid cyclist whose past excursions have taken him across the country and from California to the Baja region of western Mexico, loves being able to set out from his house in any direction and ride for 15 to 20 miles.
“It’s like being at the center of a wheel where any of the roads are spokes,” he says.
Even for a guy who has sought out a fair share of trying living conditions — with stays in Africa, a teepee in West Virginia and a solar-powered trailer off the grid in California — Barnett has found Vermont winters an adjustment.
“This last winter was a beautiful winter. If you’re going to have winter, you should have snow. And we had it,” he laughs. “So it’s not too bad. I burn wood for 75 percent of my heat. I only burned 150 gallons of fuel oil last year. So that’s good.”
In the past, he says, “I knew what winters were like but I hadn’t for the past 30 years lived in a winter. It was always … we could drive to Tahoe and ski. And be in the snow and out of the snow kind of thing. So, yeah, it was very different to come here and live it.”
All and all, Louise Dion and Gary Barnett recognize the good fortune they have had when it comes to living in the midst of natural beauty. Not too far away is the Northeast Kingdom that Barnett has read so much about in the work of writers like the poet David Budbill. During the warmer months, when not tending to the garden that Rodney Robbins laid out and to which Barnett has added (featuring fruit trees, grapes, asparagus, rhubarb and berry patches), Barnett likes to take a seat in Rodney’s old recliner situated in one of the hay-lofts with a westward view, where a body can relax and watch the weather roll in.
“Can you imagine coming into these hills when they were covered with forest?” Barnett asks, “and sayin’ ‘OK, this is where I’m gonna go,’ and start clearin’ the forest and cuttin’ the wood and shapin’ the wood, I mean … yeah, it’s hard to imagine the work that really everybody did back then.”
Author Jeff Price is a freelance writer who can be contacted through his website,

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