New bones for old barn: 200-year-old gem still at heart of a working farm

SUDBURY — The Miller Hill Farm in Sudbury has seen everything from Abenaki hunting encampments to dairying and subsistence farming to a retail/wholesale plant nursery. For current owners Carl Phelps and Nan Jenks-Jay, restoring the historic property a few hundred yards west of Otter Creek has been both a labor of love and an effort to keep a working farm working.
“We bought the place in 1998,” said Phelps. To which Jenks-Jay quipped, “It had 18 outbuildings and every barn had three feet of manure in it.”
“A lot of the buildings were kind of falling down — including various falling down chicken coops. Everything was in disrepair. So we started little by little as we could afford it, fixing things back up,” Phelps continued. “And we still have a long way to go.”
The farm’s cape-style house and farm buildings are registered in the Vermont State Register of Historic Places, and Phelps and Jenks-Jay have worked on just about every one of them.
Now the farm’s largest and most important outbuilding, its more-than-200-year-old English-style barn, is up for restoration.
Last spring the couple won a $4,142 Barn Preservation matching grant from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s Division for Historic Preservation.
Given the barn’s age and importance, Phelps and Jenks-Jay decided to forego their usual DIY approach. This summer they brought in Starksboro preservation specialist Charles Parker, who led the three-man team that is just steps from completing phase one of the barn’s restoration.
Parker has seen a lot of barns in his 44 years of restoring Vermont’s historic structures, but he says the Miller Hill English barn is exceptional.
“There’s so much here that’s original,” said Parker. “Usually a building like this has had some major thing done to it, an alteration of some kind, and this one has very little of that. It’s almost all still here, all the details are still here, and it hasn’t deteriorated that much. It needs a lot of help, but this is minor compared with some barns of this age, that are completely falling down, or too far gone.”
To look at the barn through Parker’s eyes is to imagine the original hill farm come to life. The land was first settled by Timothy Miller, one of Sudbury’s first five settlers, in the 1770s. Parker believes the 30-by-40-foot English barn was built somewhere between 1790 and 1810.
“There were some techniques that came into use in the 18-teens and 1820s that this barn doesn’t have. So I’m guessing that it had to have been before then,” he said. “But I also think that there wasn’t a lot going on in Vermont before 1790, so I’m really reluctant — a barn this size when people were just getting here and making these little mud huts or whatever they were living in for those first couple of years, would they have built a barn this big? I’m thinking it would have taken a couple of generations, almost, to get enough kids together just to build it.”
Among the features Parker points out is an eight-inch-square beam that runs the entire 40-foot length of the building made out of a single piece of white pine, the same tree famous in earlier times for supplying ships’ masts. Elsewhere Parker points out a crosswise beam made out of American chestnut.
Parker says it’s “very rare” to see chestnut used in buildings. What Champlain Valley chestnut trees weren’t taken by loggers in the first few generations of white settlers were wiped out by chestnut blight in the early 1900s.
English barns are known for having three bays: a large central bay for threshing, doing other kinds of work, or storing wagons; and two side bays, one for animals and the other for storing hay in a giant mound.
On the hay side, Parker points out a series of holes in an oak post and chuckles.
“These holes in the side of it were for pegs to come out, so this post became a ladder. And there’s pegs on either side, or a peg went all the way through, which is a really unique ladder, cause it’s not a ladder, it’s just a pole with some sticks in it. And that’s how they got to the top of that pile of hay that was in here. That gives you an idea of how tall that pile of hay was, and I don’t know if you’ve ever piled up loose hay, but it takes a lot to get that big of a pile.”
On the animal side, Parker looks closely at a circle with two slashes carved into the post, right near a mortise and tenon joint and identifies it as a “marriage mark.”
“That meant that the beam that was taken out of here would have had one of those same marks on it also, so that when they were putting it together they knew that that piece fit with this piece. And they were not interchangeable. That’s what makes this pre-1810, because around that time pieces became interchangeable. But before then only that piece would fit in that place. It took them all winter to cut it out, and then in the spring they would start to put it all together.”
Making nails, Parker said, was also a winter job, and one that could be done by the whole family, kids included, gathered around the fireside.
“Each nail had to be handmade, one at a time. You took a chunk of steel that was square. You had to break it off of a longer piece, then make a point on it first, then make a head on it. So it was really time-consuming.”
Not surprisingly, Parker said he gets a sense of euphoria in old buildings.
On the Miller Hill barn project, Parker brought in his son Ephraim and co-preservationist Mark Shiff. Shiff and Parker have separate restoration businesses but often work together on projects.
The barn is important to Phelps and Jenks-Jay not just because of its historic significance but because it is essential to their farming operation. They use the property’s 185 acres to grow hay, raise sheep (they have had Romneys but are transitioning to a Shetland-Black Welsh Mountain cross because the fleece is more highly sought after) and run Miller Hill Farm Nursery and Gardens. The nursery has largely grown native trees and shrubs for wholesale, using seeds collected in the Champlain Valley. In the past two years, the couple has begun expanding into retail operation, selling ornamental annuals and perennials.
“The idea was here we have a hill farm, so how do we make it stay a farm? Our vision was if we could build a business, then the farm is viable and will stay here instead of somebody bulldozing it all down and building a mansion to enjoy the view,” said Phelps.
Stage one work on the Miller Hill English barn has involved improving drainage, rebuilding part of the stone foundation and stabilizing the structure overall. Prior to that, the couple received a Vermont Preservation Trust grant to assess the barn’s needs. According to that initial assessment, there are many phases ahead.
“We have the project broken down into many phases so it can be affordable,” said Phelps. “And we will reapply (for a preservation grant) as soon as we know how much we can afford for the next year. We want to keep the project moving along.”
Jenks-Jay feels a measure of wonder when assessing the Miller Hill Farm buildings
“The interesting thing to me is that the buildings that were built from the 1950s on, like in the ’50s and ’70s, they’re falling down,” she said. “The buildings that were built 200 years ago, they’re in better shape. It’s just a different kind of craftsmanship.”
Jenks-Jay and Phelps acknowledge the draw of history.
“The feeling we have about this place and what drew us to it was not the deplorable condition it was in but was it’s so authentic,” Jenks-Jay said. “And there have been so many lives and hands that have gone into making it, the different generations that have added to it. We want to be able to stabilize and improve all of that, while bringing it up to date as it a real working farm.”
Contact reporter Gaen Murphree at [email protected].

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