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Timber Frame Barns Stretched
Into 20th Century
Timber framing is a type of construction whose roots stretch back to ancient Egypt. Simply stated it is a traditional building process that uses a skeletal framework of wooden members held together through joinery and bracing. A tenon fashioned on the end of one piece of wood or timber will fit into a pocket or mortise from another piece. Wooden pegs sometimes called tree nails hold the wooden assembly or frame together.
The "balloon frame" came into being in 1832 through the efforts of George Snow. In this style, dimension lumber is used to construct walls and partitions with much of the structural integrity of the building resting on studded walls.
Although the balloon frame quickly became the norm for home building by the Civil War period, barn builders resisted this trend. In Tioga County the author has yet to find a balloon frame barn that can be accurately dated prior to the World War I period. Much of the new barn construction from the post-Civil War period was accomplished with frames from old English threshing barns. Frames were extended, joined together or the gable roof replaced by a gambrel roof. These practices continued well into the 20th century as well. Sometimes the old frames were completely disassembled and an entirely new barn was built from "recycled" framing timbers.
The first balloon frame barn of which the author has knowledge is the "Green Barn " on Route 38 north of Flemingville. This was built in 1929 after the original barn was destroyed by fire. The new barn was selected from a Sears catalog.
The 1920's did not end timber frame barn construction, however. In a recently discovered album of photos by Ross McCullough, three shots were taken of a barn raising at Roy Stannard's place in Newark Valley. The barn has the traditional English frame and appears to have the 30' X 40' dimensions. Although there is no date on the photos, the vast majority of these pictures date from the 1920's.
Alfred Budney has told me that a timber frame barn was raised on his father's place on Route 38B in the late 1930's. One part of the raising that always stayed in his mind was watching Tony Nizalowski, my uncle, climb the frame to attach the bracing for the next bent. Tony was about 12 years old at the time. The frame was raised in the traditional manner with about 20 men hand lifting and using pike poles. Bill Dickinson, formerly of Newark Valley, was also part of the crew and said that he and Tony did much of the work in the upper part of the frame.
Sheldon Davis of Berkshire remembers his father having the "yellow barn" from Dryden disassembled and brought to his place in the Berkshire hills. The barn from Dryden was an early 19th century English threshing barn that was joined to a frame that probably dated from the second quarter of the 19th century. Sheldon's father contracted for the disassembly and reconstruction, but did much of the work himself. The yellow paint that gave the barn its name can still be seen on the frame.
The Depression of the 1930's caused many hill farms to go out of business. Many of these farms were bought by New York State and have now become our state woods. There were often a variety of buildings located on these farms for which local farmers and contractors placed a bid. A horse barn on the Livermore farm (now Oakley Corners State Forest) was a structure that went to a farm in the Town of Owego.
One example of adaptive reuse of a building was done on the farm of John Nizalowski, my grandfather, in the mid-1920's. He took an existing horse barn, extended the rafters and built a basement underneath. The original structure had sat at right angles to an old threshing barn that had been converted into a bank dairy barn. The two were brought together to form one long structure. About 1945 another addition was built to the existing barn that was also done as a timber frame.
Back in the 1920's my grandfather worked with Ross McCullough, Ross' grandfather and "Maney" Schoolcraft. Since my grandfather never spoke English that well his entire life, his English skills must have been very rudimentary in this time period. How he was able to communicate with these three Yankees is still a puzzle to me, but the proof is in the structure that still stands today.
In recent years a high percentage of these old timber frame barns are either falling into decay or being recycled for homes, businesses or other non-agricultural uses. However, there was a recent "traditional" reuse of a timber frame barn that took place in 1995. Gary Ray of Candor, an individual active in local draft horse clubs, took down a frame barn in the Village of Newark Valley for use as a shop and horse barn.
The author is looking for other stories relating to the timber framing tradition and adaptive reuse of agricultural buildings in Tioga County. If you have something to share, contact him via the Newark Valley Historical Society, Box 222, Newark Valley, NY 13811 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barn Raisings Are a Unique
Piece of America's Past
The phrase "barn raising" still solicits excitement. Even though few barns or their frames are constructed through means of a community effort, it is still used to help convey the need for many hands to pull together for a common cause. It embodies the selfless need for a team effort to accomplish a difficult or formidable task for the good of an individual, a family or a community. Although the raising of a barn frame took place many thousands of times, the written record of these occurrences is quite meager as is the case with barn building in general.
Although a barn raising is the most dramatic component to the building of this type of structure, there is an enormous amount of work and preparation that would precede the calling in of your neighbors for the "big day". A need for a raising also denotes that the barn was timber frame. Nearly every barn built prior to the Civil War was of this type and these would still be the norm well into the 20th century.
The preparation of the materials was often done by the individual farmer from his own woodlot. The work of this type was traditionally done in the winter. Not only did a farmer have more time for this type of work, but frozen ground greatly facilitated the movement of logs. In addition to harvesting the trees necessary for construction, nearly every frame prior to the Civil War was hand hewn or would have a high percentage of hand hewn timbers.
The old growth forest offered the logger and/or timber framer the finest material imaginable. With a forest canopy in the 150' range, there were numerous trees of moderate dimension with long narrow tapers and dense growth rings. Trees of this quality reduce the amount of work needed to turn a log into a beam and the broad axe work on many early barns is exceptional. Many times the surface is so smooth that at first glance it might seem that the beam came from a mill.
Few farmers had the skill to fashion the frame themselves. This was usually done by a craftsman called a carpenter or a joiner who would normally work with an apprentice or two. The number of frame barns constructed in the eastern United States after the frontier opened up after the Revolutionary War was in the thousands.
Before a frame can be assembled, a foundation must be placed beneath it. In the early years barns were often positioned on strategically placed large boulders called plint stones. A laid up tone foundation might come later, but until the late 19th century, almost all foundations were laid up dry.
Before a raising crew could be assembled, the sills and floor joists needed to be in place. There was a preference for white oak or chestnut for this part of the frame because along the base there was greater exposure to the elements. If a floor couldn't be built in time for the raising, some kind of temporary one would suffice.
Calling together a group of people for a raising was probably not that difficult once the general population had reached sufficient numbers. Farmers and their families worked together for a variety of purposes. The sense and reasoning that enabled a group of people to come together for a common cause came from years of tradition and necessity. These various "work bees" also filled a social need at a time when leisurely hours spent visiting were not a normal part of daily life.
On the designated day for the raising, entire families would descend upon the chosen site. Women came to prepare meals for the raising crew. Young children came for a chance to frolic with companions and watch the show, but older children would start filling their roles to aid in the common effort. And the all important factor of weather would be watched with nervous attention.
The raising would often be led by the framer himself. Although many hands make light work, each crew leader hoped that there would be enough experienced and capable volunteers to avoid pitfalls and accidents. Perhaps some recruiting and solicitation might even take place. The process of raising the first bent (one of the main components to the frame) was always a bit nerve wracking. It requires the coordination of people hand lifting the timbers while others stand back, ready to jab their pike poles for the vertical launch.
With two bents in place and their timbers pegged together, the crew can proceed with a bit more confidence. The number of bents for a barn can vary with larger ones containing seven or eight. With all the bents in place, scaffolding must be laid across the top to provide a platform for raising the plates. Not everyone feels comfortable working from a height and this was another component for a raising where having an experienced crew up on top made everyone breathe much easier.
If the frame was complete at this point, rafters could be set in place and the task finished. Many frames, however, had an upper structure consisting of queen post assemblies and purlins that would involved a great deal more time and more risk. In general, most frames would be standing tall by the end of the day. Diverting people away from their own work and chores for two days in a row would be difficult.
If the frame came together without mishap or mistakes and there wasn't a late afternoon thunderstorm, its completion would be cause for varying degrees of celebration, tradition, feasting, exuberance, frivolity, exhibitionism and indulgence. One custom carried into the present day involves the nailing of the green bough to the frame usually done by the master carpenter. The roots of this custom can be traced back many centuries and among other attributes it signifies paying homage to the forest from which the frame has come. When it came time to eat, the work of the women that afternoon would be consumed with an appetite equal to the efforts involved in raising the frame itself. An evening's barn dance lasting late into the evening would cap the day's activities.
In America the completed frame became a vehicle for acts of acrobatic daring while the crew at ground level engaged in athletic contests and drinking bouts. Someone would climb to the top rafter, christen the frame with a bottle of rum and give the frame a name perhaps with some verse included as well.
Although barn raisings embody a popular image of so much that is positive about our agricultural and rural heritage, there are at least two components that are often dropped from the retelling of the experience. In spite of a tradition of barn raising that gave builders a reasonable assurance that a competent crew would assemble itself, the inherent risks involved with the raising of a frame still existed. There were numerous injuries and more than one fatality resulting from the effort to help someone in the neighborhood.
Another component that marred the positive barn raising image was alcohol consumption. This was especially true in the first quarter of the 19th century when American consumption of distilled spirits was at an all time high. Providing strong drink actually became a necessary component for gathering a crew with many refusing to start work without an alcoholic boost. This would also account for the increased risk of accident and injury. In many communities certain families or groups decided that alcohol consumption had to stop at barn raisings, but it often took years to reach the goal of having a "dry frame". According to the Four County History written by Everts and Ensign in 1879 (?), the Town of Groton didn't achieve this distinction until 1844.
Although the "balloon frame" came in the 1830's and soon became the norm for most homes built after the Civil War, the timber framing tradition survived much longer for barn construction. In Northern Tioga County there are accounts of timber frame constructed barns lasting into the 1940's. The author will be exploring the timber framing tradition as it survived into the 20th century in a subsequent article and would appreciate any stories that people are willing to share.
Write to Ed Nizalowski c/o Newark Valley Historical Society, P. O. Box 222, Newark Valley, NY 13811 or e-mail email@example.com.
Farm Boys Were a Tough Breed
Agricultural pursuits have traditionally been a way of life that demanded strenuous, physical activity. The amount of brawn needed to engage in this occupation began to lessen when the Industrial Revolution turned its attention to agriculture in the second quarter of the 19th century. Utilization of machinery and applying scientific methods to the arts of husbandry became the guidelines for the "modern, progressive" farmer. In spite of all the agricultural wizardry that has come along in the last 150 years, sheer muscle was a welcome and almost necessary attribute to keep up the efficiency of a farm operation well into the mid-20th century. This seemed to be especially true of the hillside farms.
I started this article with the intention of making it a reminiscence of my Uncle, Tony Nizalowski, born in 1926. Tony always loomed as a larger than life individual who had the physique to back it up. He had a pair of hands that were so large that greeting him with the usual handshake made one feel like they were grabbing the side of a ham. Stories of physical bravado circulated in our family for as long as I can remember, but in recent years family friends and acquaintances began adding to the anecdotal record.
When my uncle was in his prime he had three neighborhood chums that helped keep the scales to the max when it came to dead weight lifting. These were Art Kulikowski, Edwin "Slim" Budney and Roger Snapp, a sort of "Four Horsemen of East Newark Valley". For amusement they liked to see who could who could pick up the biggest tractor. Of course, the tractors weren't as big back then, but lifting a tractor of any size, even if it's a lawn tractor, is still impressive. Art Kulikowski told me that both he and Tony could pick up the front end of a Farmall H.
Farm boys like to impress each other with how well they can handle a hundred pound bag of feed. I always had problems moving a bag of feed let alone picking it up. Tony's rapport with feed bags seems most like a tall tale. When Merle Prentice of Newark Valley was on the ambulance squad, my grandfather had an ulcer attack. When the squad came to the house, Tony's truck was in the way with a load of feed. Tony picked up two feed bags in either hand to take to the granary. Merle said, "Tony, you don't need to impress me" where upon my uncle said something to the effect that he would now actually do something impressive. My uncle not only picked up four feed bags once again, but he had two bags over his shoulders at the same time and walked off. This left quite a vivid impression on Merle's memory.
Ken Brame of Berkshire relates this story when he was working at Patch Brothers. He watched Tony pick up four 94 lb. bags of cement off a pallet, walk out the building, down a ramp and drop them over the tail gate of his truck. We'll never know if four bags was his limit or if he simply needed only four bags to do the job that day.
There were two stories concerning vehicles. One concerned a young man, "Butchie" Romanowski, who borrowed the family car and proceeded to end up in the ditch. Tony happened to come along with his tractor with a load of manure on the back. Rather than waste all that time unhooking the manure spreader, Tony picked up one end of the car and then the other back on the road. I haven't been able to determine the exact type of car, but since this was back in the 1960's, it probably wasn't a compact. In another story that Tony told to Greg Pastalan, he had been working underneath a Valiant that was owned by my grandfather. The jack slipped and Tony had to bench press the car off his chest to get from underneath.
Tony avoided bar fights because he knew that this would get him into more trouble than it was worth, but a friend of his said that he liked to do things such as pick up the bar maid and place her on the other side of the bar. There was also an instance where a drunk came stumbling in and tipped over Tony's beer. Tony didn't get upset and simply asked the bar tender for another. The drunk came back and managed to do the same thing again. Tony, while seated at his bar stool, picked this fellow up with one arm and told him that he wasn't very happy with this maneuver and that he should pay for the next round. Reportedly this fellow turned white as a sheet and when he was placed back on the floor, opened his wallet, took out some bills and never ventured back. This is not the recommended way to get sober.
Besides being big and strong, Tony had agility as well. His friend Alfred Budney remembers him climbing the frame for a barn raising and took care of much of the timber placement. Tony was 12 or 13 years old at the time. Another friend of his, Robert Johnson, remembers seeing Tony get off the bus opposite the farm with about a half mile of pasture and fields in between the road and the home. Tony would then run across the field leaping over barbed wire fences along the way.
I do want to say something about my uncle other than him being a big gallut. He had a good mind and was a very good judge of cattle. He made sure that any animals that came under his care were well fed and had good treatment. After he sold his cows he raised young stock and did a bit of cattle hauling. He told me that he often bought cows that hadn't been fed all that well and made sure that they were in good condition before they went to market. Unfortunately, many of the cows realized they were leaving a good home and did not take kindly to a possible change in surroundings. This might explain why a young bull was reluctant to get into the cattle truck. According to my brother, Tony grabbed the bull by the neck and literally pulled him up the ramp. You do what you have to do.
In the process of hearing and collecting stories about my uncle, I heard about other people who had demonstrated some remarkable physical abilities. Someone who might have been a suitable sparring partner for Tony was Harvey Scherter who lived in the Town of Maine. Harvey was 6' 4" and weighed 265 in his prime and reportedly had hands bigger than Tony's.
One story relating to Harvey took place out in the hay field. The young men loading hay bales were having trouble getting the last tier stacked, which is always a bother. Harvey came by swinging bales up top one handed showing hardly any sign of strain. When one of the lads made light of Harvey's highly efficient bale loading technique, Harvey grabbed him by the collar and the back of his belt and placed him on the top tier. I imagine the jokes dropped off quite a bit after that episode.
In another instance Harvey was working down at a green house after he had sold his cows. Two young fellows were poking fun at him most of the day and just generally being annoying. Harvey didn't respond or make any fuss all day long. At the end of the day when all three were outside, Harvey turned to the young men, picked them both up off the ground by their collars and told them they should be more civil or he would bash their heads together. This, of course, had the desired result. This story was told to Harvey's son, Bob, by one of the young perpetrators himself.
Someone else who had a reputation for physical strength in the Town of Maine was Charlie Kasper. Charlie was not that big, but he had upper body strength that made up for his lack of size. His son Edward told me that back in the early 1930's he went to the county fair in Owego and on a dare went into the ring with a professional wrestler. The wrestler lost. He also said that one morning at the creamery in the Town of Maine he got tired of someone who cut in line with their milk. Charlie walked over and tipped his model T Ford over on its side.
Charlie also demonstrated the practical applications of tractor lifting on a Fordson 10-20. This model as with many types from that era had spade lugs on the iron wheels for traction. The problem with the lugs was that if the ground was soft, the lugs found a groove for themselves and moving the tractor a few inches one way or another was nearly impossible.
This was the case with a group of people who were setting up a threshing machine. The tractor needed to be a foot or so to one side so that the belt would have the proper alignment. Moving the tractor back and forth was turning out to be an exercise in futility. When Charlie came by to see what the hold up was, he surveyed the situation, placed his back to the tractor and made the necessary adjustment. Too bad someone didn't have a camera.
This story was told by Fred Daniels, who picked up milk for Charlie. There had been a very heavy snowfall during the night and there was between 2' - 2 1/2' of snow on the ground. Charlie had shoveled a path down to his platform where he set his milk cans, but Fred came by before he was able to get the milk down. Fred saw Charlie coming from the barn holding a full can of milk in either hand at shoulder height to keep them from bumping the snow. Each can probably weighed about 100 pounds.
Another individual whose name came up in conversation was Ivan Corson who lived over in the Town of Maine. Ivan and another farmer (lets call him George) got into a dispute. George was upset to the point that he planned on throttling Ivan if their paths should ever cross again. It so happened that Ivan had a flat tire on the road across from George's farm. Ivan's wife was with him at the time.
There didn't happen to be any jack in the car so Ivan took off three lug nuts and loosened the other two right near the end of the threads. Ivan told his wife to take off the flat and put on the spare once he had picked up that side of the car. It was just about this time that George realized that Ivan happened to be stuck on the road and he proceeded to walk up to Ivan and take care of business. As he was approaching the car, George saw Ivan pick it up to change the flat. George decided to let bygones be bygones.
The story about the car is one that Bob Scherter told me. He said it was one of those stories that circulated in his part of the country years ago, but I did hear this one from Ivan's daughter, Laura Brigham. She told me that a merchant in the hamlet of Maine was trying to pick up his model T with both hands without success. Ivan accomplished the task with one hand.
Feats of Strength
Although these feats of strength are impressive, the sheer physical stamina that was necessary to keep food on the table and keep the bills paid needs to be emphasized. This applies to all the men along with their wives, children, family friends and hired help. Sixteen+ hour days could stretch for weeks on end during planting and harvesting time. It was from this constant demand and need for physical endurance that certain individuals developed their "Schwarzenegger" attributes. These men didn't spend any time in a weight room, took no steroids, or ingested any special muscle developing supplements. Their training regimen was a life where sheer muscle power and stamina was the measure of difference for keeping the wolves from the door.
The Nizalowski farm is located on Route 38B approximately 2 miles from Route 38 directly across from the farm of the Snapp family. Most of the buildings are still standing and being maintained by my cousins. There is now a pond that has been constructed and a moderately sized group of ducks and geese call the farm their home. The dairy cows have been replaced by llamas and alpacas. My grandfather and uncle probably never imagined these exotic immigrants populating the hills of East Newark Valley, but it certainly beats looking at a housing development or a trailer park.
Every time I drive by I take a glance at the place to see how the operation is holding up. If I go back 80 to 90 years this was one more hillside farm struggling to survive, but the images and memories that take precedence are those of a Polish farm family who brought it back to life in the early 1920's. I see my grandfather working with his neighbors to expand and improve the efficiency of his barn. My father is working the fields with a team of horses. And now there is another image: my Uncle Tony coming out to fix fence in the Spring by swinging two mauls hand over hand. No, I'm not making this up. If no one had invented the story of John Henry, they had someone from the hills of Tioga County that could have served as a model.
If you have other stories relating to feats of strength, either male or female, I would appreciate hearing them. Contact me via the Newark Valley Historical Society, Box 222, Newark Valley, NY 13811 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
New Life For an Old Building
Over the years they have seen many uses. Century old timber framed threshing barns are pretty common in upstate New York, although sometimes they may be disguised.
In the 1800's thousands of these out buildings dotted the country side. In early times, they were used for hay and grain storage, and to house a few cows or oxen. By the end of the nineteenth century, the demand for dairy products in the cities was growing, and the use of machinery allowed farmers to work more productively. Many were converted to accommodate mechanized hay tracks and dairy herds. During the first half of the twentieth century, many smaller buildings were incorporated into larger barns as herds grew, and more storage for baled hay was needed. Today's highly automated farms require much more spacious buildings.
Some threshing barns are still used for hay and equipment storage, or space may be rented out for winter storage of boats or RV's. But increasingly, these old timber framed structures are finding new lives as homes, offices, or retail shops.
You may find some information useful for your project in our unique links listing, including comprehensive list of links related to preserving and restoring old farm buildings.
The Threshing Barn: A
Window into the Past
If there is any one structure that would symbolize the
life and character of rural America from the early 1800's, it would be
the threshing barn. There were literally thousands of these barns built
during this period and they are a direct link with the pioneer past.
The Story of the Old Green
One of the landmarks on the route between Owego and Newark Valley is a large green barn right across from Valley Trailer Park, often referred to as the Sears Barn. According to Wilma Clark Hines, who grew up on the farm where the barn is located, the original barn at that site burned on Christmas Eve, 1928. Although arson was suspected, it was never proven. She believes that the barn in question was built the next year.
Sears and Roebuck was known for selling nearly everything under the sun and barns were among the items. The barns were sold as kits which included all the materials needed for construction and could be customized according to size. Local old-timers speculate that the material came by rail and was deposited at the depot in Flemingville. It would have been a short trip by freight wagon to the building site.
Sears Archives in Chicago have provided 14 pages from its catalogs which described these products covering the period of 1911, 1918 and 1929. In 1911 the material for a gambrel roof barn measuring 30' X 54' could be purchased for $480. This included rough lumber, framing timbers, plank flooring, shingles, hardware, sash and paint. Allowing a fair estimate for labor and cinder blocks, their estimate to build a barn of this type was $775, "including all material and labor." For $56 more a lean-to shed 26' X 16' and 12" high could be included. One wonders if these prices might still be good.
The barn in question appears to have been built in two stages. The south end is similar to what the catalog refers to as a "Cyclone" barn (1918 catalog), but with modifications. The main door comes off the side to accommodate wagon loads of loose hay which would be taken up with a mechanical hay fork. A barn of this type could be custom ordered with a width ranging from 24' to 40' and a length of 24' to 140'. A 40' X 140' barn of this type with "select" cypress siding was a whopping $3,484 for materials.
The north end was added at a later date and is very close to the "Springfield" barn described in its 1929 catalog. This section has two huge doors on the second level which swing around the inside of the barn on a track. It differs in two other aspects as well having masonry walls in the basement and trusses rather than purlins for roof supports. By 1929 prices were quoted on request rather than listed in the catalog.
The original color was yellow, but was changed to green sometime after Roy and Sally Strait bought the farm in 1952. Harold Parsons bought from the Straits and kept a dairy into the early 1980's. But like so many other barns this one is no longer in use and has not been maintained. Although much of the east side has a metal roof, there are two gaping holes on the west side which will push the barn beyond repair before many more winters have passed us by.
The barn does have a last chance. The Tioga Farm and Craft Market Cooperative has signed an option to purchase the property on which the barn is located and would like to restore it. Much of the inside framing and timbers are still sound. Financing for the project and rezoning are still in the negotiation/preliminary stages, but there is hope.
A landmark is a structure or object which lends a special character to a place or serves as a guidepost. Even though this structure came from a catalog as a kit, there are few barns which can duplicate its unique character and presence. For those traveling from the south, even before you have passed the Flemingville Depot, the Sears barn suddenly appears in the distance over a mile away. Lets hope that this experience will continue to reward travelers for many generations to come.
Note: Anyone with information about the history of the Sears barn should contact Ed Nizalowski (642- 8075). Those interested in saving the barn should contact the Tioga Farm and Craft Market Cooperative, P. O. Box 301, Owego, NY 13827.
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