The Howell-Redfield Barn

Deerfield Twp., Michigan

Click the image above to see a larger photograph.

119 Years of Agricultural History: The 1878 Howell-Redfield Barn

Deerfield Township, Lapeer County, Michigan

This huge old barn provides an excellent example of 19th century Michigan barn construction. It also provides persons interested in barn preservation with an example of the kind of restoration which can return an old barn to functioning economic use. The Howell family has undertaken the restoration of this barn both as an effort to preserve part of our agricultural history as well as a sound business decision to make economic use of a significant farm asset.

This particular barn is unique for a number of reasons. It is substantially larger (96 x 52 feet) than most Michigan barns. While there are some local examples of large barns created by joining two barns together, there are very few examples of a single barn structure of this magnitude in the area. With a full basement underneath and a height of 60 feet from the ground floor to the peak, the barn was intended to accommodate a large agricultural enterprise.

The barn was constructed by the Redfield family in 1878. Benjamin B. Redfield was a lumberman who bought large tracts of land in Lapeer County in order to acquire the white pine timber. He purchased this particular land from the government on June 15, 1854. Over a period of years he sent the timber to his mill on Norway Lake, approximately three miles southwest of the farm. The pine stump fence rows throughout the farm come from the lumbering era in the 1860's and early 1870's.

While the current Howell farm consists of 200 acres, the Redfield estate on which the barn was built originally contained 560 contiguous acres. Once the lumbering was completed, Benjamin Redfield and his son, Seward, undertook to create a showplace farm. Although Benjamin Redfield remained a resident of the city of Lapeer, Seward Redfield moved on to the farm and actively managed the property. In 1876, the Redfields erected rail fences around the entire acreage and began raising cattle. The barn construction was undertaken in 1878 to provide a big enough structure for the hay, grain, and livestock to be produced on the farm. Given the close proximity of the Redfield sawmill, the barn was constructed with generous amounts of white pine lumber. While hand hewn oak logs were used for basement support beams, the floor joists were 3" x 10 " white pine, and the floors were made from 2" x 18" pine planks.

In September 1881 a great fire swept across the Thumb of Michigan, including Deerfield Township. Two miles to the north farmers lost barns, houses, and crops to the fire. Fortunately, this barn and other buildings on the Redfield farm were sufficiently isolated from the fire by open fields to escape destruction. However, the fire reports indicate that the Redfield estate lost four miles of fencing around the perimeter of the farm, consisting of 4,000 fence rails.

In 1878, the same year that the barn was constructed, Seward Redfield was elected Supervisor of Deerfield Township. At that time, Seward had the largest farm in the Township. The late 1870's, however, turned out to be the high point of the Redfield family fortunes. Benjamin Redfield died early 1881 and the great fire did substantial economic damage to the farm later that same year. Pursuant to the will of Benjamin Redfield the farm became the joint property of Seward Redfield and his sister, Jane Redfield. After struggling under the burden of four mortgages, which were inherited with the land, the Redfields lost the farm to foreclosure in 1886. The farm came into the ownership of Robert King, a Lapeer lumberman who had provided mortgage money to the Redfields.

King rented the farm out from 1886 to 1903, when it was sold to James Gray. In 1915 it came into the ownership of John Laur. He farmed it until he lost it to foreclosure by the Lapeer Savings Bank, in 1931. At that point, the farm and its buildings fell on hard times. The bank rented the farm out during the 1930's and made several unsuccessful attempts to sell the property. The buildings began to deteriorate during this period. In 1947 the Young family purchased the farm and began a dairying operation. In order to accommodate the dairy cattle, a milk house and milking parlor were constructed in the southeast corner of the basement and poured concrete walls were installed to replace the original stone front on the basement. Unfortunately, the barn suffered much damage during the 1950's. Silage was stored in the mow, which resulted in rotting damage to the floor and lower walls. The original house deteriorated to the point that it was torn down in 1960.

When the farm came into the ownership of the Howell family in 1982, the barn was on its last legs. The roof was leaking badly, the floors and beams were broken and rotted in places, and much of the siding had blown off the ends of the barn. Gary Howell arranged for foundation, roof, and siding work to be done in 1982 in order to stabilize the structure. He then began planning for the eventual restoration of the building.

In 1991, the Howells contracted with M Stitt Barn Restoration to undertake the complete removal and rebuilding of the floor system and supporting beams. The structure was jacked back into a straight and level position, the sill beams and basement support posts were replaced, and the entire beam and joist system were rebuilt with new oak. In addition, a new roof was placed on the barn, and several new doors and vents were installed.

To the greatest degree possible, the restoration followed the original design of the building. Several of the original vents (which had long since disappeared) were replaced by similar vintage ones from a barn in Indiana. The remainder of the vents and doors were constructed to resemble the original design. New metal roofing was placed on both the main barn and the smaller companion barn which had originally served as a granary. Unfortunately it was impossible to replace two of the unique features in the original building. Originally, there was a platform extending the entire length of the barn, about twelve feet above the floor. Hay wagons were drawn up an outside ramp and onto this center platform to easily unload loose hay into the mows. Also there was a windmill located in the center of the roof that provided power to grind grain. It was simply too costly to replace these two unique features of the original barn at this time.

The barn has been returned to service for hay and machinery storage, and the milking parlor has become the farm workshop.

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