Iconic Orwell barn gets needed facelift

ORWELL — Last Spring at Eagle’s Flight Farm in Orwell, I discovered the 2014-2015 season had taken a toll on our beautiful 1880, slate roof, post and beam, English Bank barn. I was told it might not make it through another winter. The cement foundation previous owners had installed 25-30 years ago was the main culprit.
The historic barn is the centerpiece of the farm visually and fits prominently into the regenerative permaculture design created to provide shelter as well as an abundant supply of food and water for a community of people and animals that will hopefully live on the farm in the future.
In the plan, rainwater runoff from the massive barn roof would supply a pond system that uses plants and aquaculture to purify water and provide edible yields. The water catchment system is an integral piece for a future “Food Forest” heavily planted with fruit and nut trees that would create an abundant food supply for all.
The structurally sound barn needed to be restored in order to benefit people, plants and animals for another hundred years or more.
Repurposing plans include providing space for a seed bank, yoga, dance and tai chi studio as well as an art studio and rooms for meditating, drinking tea and accessing resources on sustainable practices and permaculture.
Although I didn’t (and presently still don’t) have the funds to restore the barn, I vowed I would find a way and so began looking for expert advice and estimates.
After being told I should sell the barn because I would make money instead of spending it, I was introduced to two men who brought hope and encouragement: Charley Parker of Traditional Building Trades LLC and Mark Shiff of Historic Building Restoration and Care LLC.
Charley and Mark have a combined 82 years of experience. Their skill, great attention to detail, passion for old barns and synergy with each other became apparent quickly.
I watched in amazement as they detached the barn from the cement wall; removed massive bolts and lifted the barn several inches off the wall — with a hand jack. I could hear the entire barn being raised up by men who are well past the young buck stage of life, but have more life in them than many young bucks!
From one end of the barn to the other, they replaced the old wooden beams, which tilted worryingly, with solid, new 8-inch-by-8-inch beams they cut to size from 10-foot lengths previously milled at the Book Brothers in Benson. Charley and Mark built braces for the beams and shored up the seams.
Within weeks of commencing work this past December, before another winter set in and with very little use of electric tools, the two men completed the first and critical phase of stabilizing the barn.
I sat down with them in my farmhouse kitchen to learn more about the barn I’m stewarding and what drew them to the trade they are so passionate about. They gave different explanations about their individual motivation.
“I grew up in a family of historians; to go into an antique store is an euphoric experience,” Charley said. “The feeling I get from being around old things makes me want to restore them.”
Mark had his own take.
“It’s people that I’m drawn to,” he said. “I love old people. I don’t like seeing old people die that I care about; the same is true for barns.
“I was closest to my grandfather who was an upholsterer,” Mark continued. “He did the work on 17th- and 18th-century museum-quality furniture. I watched and helped him do his work. In old barns, there’s nothing more beautiful than a hand-hewn beam … it’s real evidence of someone trying to shape something. My grandfather took pieces of furniture apart and carefully reassembled them; that’s the tie.”
Mark spoke about some of his background.
“I went to school for preservation work, but the guy who taught it told me I still needed to learn what I needed to know,” Mark said. “The only way to do that is to work ‘in the field,’ but most people don’t want to do that anymore.”
What are some of the biggest challenges you face when restoring old barns?
“The difficulty lies in that there is no textbook, there’s no secret … every barn is different. You look at the problem and decide how you are going to solve it.
“We thought a long time about how we were going to deal with your barn. It was a culmination of visits and sleepless nights thinking about it. You have to keep an open mind … there’s always problem solving, it happens every time.”
Charley and Mark have given the barn (and me) the gift of time to raise the funds needed to proceed with work on the final two phases of restoration and repurposing.
The 1880 barn has become the fulcrum point for Eagle’s Flight Farm.
As Mark said, “The barn is the energy, the synergistic infusion … it gives me new life, you new life, the barn new life…it pulls people in!”
For more about this project, contact Elizabeth Frank at Eagle’s Flight Farm in Orwell.

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