This story first appeared as an article in Michigan History Magazine (Jan / Feb 1995).
The first talk I remember of building a barn was in the summer of 1910 when I was five years old. Dad and Mother discussed the barn plans for years and finally one Sunday in 1915 Dad had Julius Keusch, a carpenter from Portland come to the farm and give his advice.
Our existing barn was 80 feet long and 30 feet wide and had been made by joining two old 30 x 40 barns, dating from before the Civil War, together end to end. A lean-to was built onto one end to serve as a horse barn and the cow stable was on the opposite end. Dad's idea was to again separate the two barns and move the two sections together side by side to form a 40 x 60 barn with a basement underneath and put a new gambrel roof over the combined building. A new gambrel roof would allow more room for hay storage in the mow than the existing shed roof.
My oldest brother Jerry was 16 years old in 1915 and was excited about a new barn. Uncle Jim Moriarty was over one Sunday and strongly advised Dad to take the old barn down and build a completely new one. After this there was no more talk of using the old structure and plans progressed rapidly towards completing a barn by haying time in 1916.
One Sunday Dad and Mother drove five miles to Sebewa Corners to engage Omer Baker. Omer was a heavy set man of about 55 years who had come originally from Ohio. He had built many barns in the area over the years and they were noted for their well designed proportions, particularly the gambrel roofs. Some builders got the relationship between the two pitches wrong and the result was an unattractive barn. A barn in a rural community was more than a building; it was a personal statement by the farmer about himself and his position in the community.
It was arranged that Jerry would take care of the endless round of winter chores so that Dad could spend his time in the woods felling the timber and hauling the logs to the sawmill site. Winter chores included: milking by hand morning and night, hauling water and chopping ice out of the water tank, mucking out the stables and feeding all the cattle, horses, hogs and sheep their various diets.
The first work in the woods started during winter school vacation, probably the week before Christmas. I was 10 years old and Henry 12. Jerry was helping Grant and Sherman Keefer to husk corn on the neighboring Knox farm. My other brother Henry and I went to see the steam powered husker work and while walking up the road heard the first tree fall with a deafenening crash in the woods half a mile distant.
It was a large beech in the extreme northeast corner of the woods. I can still identify the heavy floor timbers in the barn that were sawn from it. They are the 10" x 12" joists 16' long just as you enter the south basement door of the barn. Now 75 years later you can still detect the beech bark where the timber didn't square up.
Dad and Ben Esch did all the felling with crosscut saws and used axes and saws to limb the trees. Our woodlot had to be stripped of all trees of reasonable size to furnish the timbers for the new barn. After the trees were felled my eldest sister Helen called Mr. Baker to tell him to come and mark the sizes he wanted them cut into. That call to Sebewa Corners five miles distant was the first long distance call our family ever made. It was a big event and we were all quiet as mice while Helen rang the operator and told her with an air of importance that it was to be "long distance" and gave Mr. Baker's name and town. Soon the operator rang back advising the connection was made.
Baker came in a few days and marked on the end of each log how it was to be sawn. The next job was to "skid" the logs. That is the process of hauling the logs into a pile near where the mill was to be located. The front end of the log was placed on two runners held together by a strong cross timber. It was called a tote. Our horses Rob and Doll strained to drag the logs over the uneven terrain and around the trees and stumps of the woods. There was one huge elm log that was moved only with great difficulty. Its size and weight can be imagined when you learn it was sawed into 55 2" x 5" rafters, each 14' long.
After the timber was sawn, the gravel hauling started. A great deal of gravel was required for the barn's foundation. Dad drove Rob and Doll the two miles to town and dug gravel from the face of a 50' sheer cliff near the Grand River. There was danger in undercutting the cliff since the frozen gravel above the excavation didn't slide down, and he worried that the frozen mass above could suddenly fall. He was relieved when after a thawing February day the face collapsed and the danger was temporarily past.
The winter of 1915-16 was a hard winter with deep snow and Dad was able to use the bobsled for gravel hauling. It carried an estimated 1 1/4 yards that weighed 3750 pounds. The sled was easily pulled on level ground, but hills were hard on the team. The toughest part was going up Dilly Hill from the river to the bluffs above with a load. The horses were only shod on the front as Dad believed rear shod horses were too dangerous if the powerful Belgians kicked. Shod only in front the team really had to strain to pull the load up that hill. Mother would see him returning in late morning and prepare hot soup. Dad would hand the team off to Jerry who by this time had finished morning chores, and go directly to thaw out in the house. Jerry could dump the load by pulling out the removable floor boards and letting the gravel fall to the ground. In this cold weather the load had to be dumped immediately before it froze. This trip was repeated daily and the pile slowly grew.
One stormy winter day Ben Esch drove his two cylinder Buffalo-Pitts steam engine through the drifts to the woods. A large flat belt from the flywheel would turn the circular saw on the portable sawmill just as it powered a threshing machine during harvest. The boiler had to be drained every night after a day of work so as to avoid damage from freezing. Ben would then walk several miles across the snow covered fields to town.
Dad dug a hole near where the engine was to sit and mistakenly thought enough water would seep and drain into it to supply the engine. It proved to be inadequate so the water had to be hauled with a tank wagon that had a pump mounted on top. The man assigned to this job was called the water monkey. We used Ben Esch's water tank. Jerry had to fill the ten barrel tank full with a hand pump every day and draw the load to the woods.
Nick Hoppes brought his portable saw mill from his farm in Clinton county in several sled loads. The dismantled mill was heavy and this was hard work. Nick and his son Ralph were the sawyers and their pay for the entire operation that lasted through February and March was only $100. The sawyers went home every night, a distance of at least 8 miles in a buggy or cutter depending on the weather.
As the days lengthened and winter changed to early spring, the daily process was for Ben to arrive early and start a fire in the Buffalo-Pitts so that steam was up when the sawyers arrived. Even though the waste wood was green it could be used as fuel after the steam engine's fire was started with dry materials.
Nick and Ralph would roll the heavy green logs onto the traveling saw carriage and secure them with dogs. Then the sawyer standing on the carriage would pass in front of the whirling 60' circular saw and cut off a 2" plank. The engine would huff and the saw scream and wet sawdust fly everywhere in the moments the saw engaged the log. Then the sawyer would advance the log 2" more into the saw and repeat the process. Each night there would be a pile of wet planks dripping sap, a heap of slab wood and a pile of sawdust.
Dad and Jerry did the excavating for the foundation as soon as the frost was out of the ground at the end of March. Then everything was ready for the actual construction to begin.
Omer Baker and his crew of four carpenters arrived about April 1. The first job was to build forms and hand mix all the concrete with long handled hoes in a mortar box. The west basement wall was 22" thick at the base and the practice was to throw as many field stone as possible into the form with the concrete. This reduced the motar mixing, saved concrete and eliminated the piles of stones we had collected from the fields. The foundation work took about a month and only then could the carpenters start to install the post and beams that would carry the first floor. While the green concrete was drying, most of the old barn was dismantled for roof boards and the subfloor of the new barn. One shed though was left standing for the horses and another lean-to as temporary shelter for the cows.
I got my first bank savings book on my 11th birthday which was April 30, 1916. Mother deposited $20 in my account for agreeing to go without a bicycle until my 12th birthday. This is how I remember the day the carpenters started laying the floor of the barn.
Although most of the carpenters were from near Sebewa only five miles distant, this was considered a prohibitive commute. It was apparently the responsibility of the client to board the carpenters, but Mother wasn't in the best of health and couldn't handle them in addition to our family of seven.
Mr. Baker agreed to board them for, I think $150. He pitched a tent under a big apple tree near the road in front of the old barn. He put down a board floor and bought a three burner kerosene stove. The only heat in the tent was this stove that also did the cooking. Every morning Baker was up early and had breakfast ready so the men could be on the job at 7:00 a.m. About 10:00 a.m. he would leave the barn site and start dinner. After dinner when the dishes were washed he returned to superintend until four or five in the afternoon. Then he left and prepared supper.
After supper the men smoked their pipes or just gossiped until bed time. Then they climbed the ladder to the loft above the old toolshed. The beds were only springs and mattresses set on saw horses. The unheated loft with large cracks in the siding made for chilly sleeping quarters in early April.
Mr. Baker, on account of his age and status spent evenings visiting with the family around the Round Oak wood stove in the living room. He was also furnished a bed in the house.
Once a week all the men walked the two miles to town to see a silent movie. Tickets were five cents for under 12 and a dime for adults. The men had never lived so closed to a moviehouse before and wanted to take advantage of the short distance.
Their menu was simple, but substantial. I recall Omer bringing several large smoked hams wrapped in paper flour sacks and burying them in the oat bin till ready for use. We also used to store pumpkins and squash there because the grain kept the food from freezing and the granary was as free from rodents as anyplace on the farm.
I remember that everyone was agreeable even though the men worked and lived together away from their families for six days a week. I don't recall of any dispute or arguments during the months they were with us.
Every Saturday after a full day of work a double buggy (the roads were free of snow by April) would come from Sebewa and return early Monday morning. The experienced carpenters made $2-2.50 daily and the two beginners, $1-1.50 daily plus the spartan room and board described here.
During May and June the work proceeded rapidly and by the middle of June the huge 34" x 80" x 43" barn was far enough along that new hay could be stored there. The materials that came from the lumber yard such as the siding, shingles, and 100 pound kegs of spikes and hardware cost $800, and Mr. Baker received $800 for his crew's labor. This price included concrete floors in the cow and horse stables and installing stalls and mangers throughout.
Jack Holton painted the barn one coat when it was finished and second coat in the autumn. He was a small lithe man that had no fear of climbing. Dad bought a 50 gallon wood barrel of paint from the paint factory in Grand Ledge fifteen miles distant. It came the entire distance by a horse and light wagon. The cost was $.75 a gallon. That barrel gave the barn two coats, did the new hoghouse the next year and the granary, and it lasted for gates, etc. for several years.
In 1917 Dad noticed that the barn was moving when there was a strong wind from the west. In spite of the attractive design, Omer Baker had neglected some necessary bracing. A 36' x 80' barn 43' feet tall does catch a lot of wind. Additional bracing was added and the barn today stands plumb and straight in spite of 75 years of winds.
Jerry lived out his life on this farm spending a good deal of it in the barn that he helped build as a teenager. I have passed from a ten year old to one almost 87 and I continue to ride bicycles that Mother persuaded me to avoid until 12 years old.
The barn is kept in excellent condition by Jerry's son Dan and his boys who will doubtlessly carry on the family's farming tradition.
Today I marvel at the construction job that my father and Jerry undertook in 1915-16, and at the backbreaking work that went into that project by everyone involved. These and millions like them were the unsung heroes who built the United States.