Travels with Chuck Whitney, "The Barn Consultant"

By Charles Leik

I met Chuck Whitney, Mt. Vernon, OH at the June 1994 Vernon Kline barn raising in Ohio’s Amish country and again at Rudy Christian’s timber frame raising in June 1995. These were brief meetings but in the intervening years I read about Chuck’s barn preservation activities in various farm publications such as Progressive Farmer and subscribed to his monthly newsletter aptly named The Barn Consultant. Finally we were able to mesh our schedules and recently I was able to join Chuck for several days of "barn traveling." This story is about these visits to notable Ohio barns as well as Chuck Whitney, a remarkable octogenarian authority on barns.

Chuck says it all started in 1918 when he missed being born in a barn by 180 feet. It was just an old-time Michigan farmstead with the usual outbuildings, most notably an old barn. The barn was a glorious old structure with weathered tulip poplar siding that stood proud and tall for many years. Then on a hot July morning cries of "Fire!" were heard and soon the proud old barn was reduced to ashes — gone forever except for the memories.

Through the years and through many occupations including eight years as publisher of the Charolais Way, an exotic cattle breed magazine, Charles remembered his childhood of play and work in the barn. It was about 1960 after his folks had passed away and the farm sold that he recalled the old broad axe that was used during his childhood in the first step to prepare Sunday’s chicken dinner. Chuck returned to the old farm and inquired about the axe. He was told the owners’ youngsters had left it in the woodlot, and sure enough, Chuck was able to recover it.

Chuck was now living in Ohio and, looking at the axe, he saw it as having a story to tell. It had been used to hew the frame to that old barn in conjunction with other hand tools. He sought information from the Ag Engineering Departments of Ohio State and Michigan State, but in 1960 there was little information or interest in traditional timber framing.

Amazingly Chuck found that his Ohio neighbor, Marion Kyle, was a retired carpenter and had built most of the barns in the community. He asked Marion to explain how he laid out barns and cut the joints. Marion quickly assembled a 2’x 8’ plank, a set of saw horses and a framing square, and in 15 minutes he had demonstrated every basic step. Chuck recalls that he hadn’t taken a notepad along to record this oral information. He hurriedly left for home to make drawings and notes of all the information. This happened in 1963 and those notes were the beginning of Chuck's detailed knowledge of old barn construction methods. Subsequently Chuck purchased most of Marion’s barn tools and continued to increase his knowledge of period barns.

Chuck saw that most barn owners are excited about saving their barns but literally didn’t know how to start. That’s understandable when you realize that many barn owners have no construction experience and in many instances, no practical farm experience. What began as Chuck’s informal advice to barn owners gradually led him into consulting that involves an on-site investigation of the barn and a written recommendation. In the past several years consulting has taken Chuck into almost 500 barns in Ohio and as far away as Mississippi’s Delta region, and there are 100 barns on the waiting list!

Chuck has found that his barn work has introduced him to some of the greatest people he’s met in nearly eight decades of working with people; they are all sound, sensible, friendly and generous. That’s what Chuck means when he refers to “Barnpeople.”

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