If these beams could talk

This article originally appeared in the December 12 issue of the Wareham Courier.

Old barns lost in the middle of abandoned fields are a familiar sight through much of the state. The clapboards are grayed, and the whole structure leans to one side as if weary with age. A few holes mar the roof, and barn swallows nest amid the posts and beams.

Still, other barns have become houses and antiques stores. Renovations and additions mask their humble origins. One thing abandoned and beloved barns have in common is they all tell a story.

"They tell you about the lives of the people, because a barn was an integral part of their lives," Mack Phinney, who works with the Barn Task Force of Preservation Mass, said.

While the meager and rocky soil of New England might have offered few rewards for even the most industrious farmers, there wasn't much of a choice. For most, farming was the default way of life. So, every family had a barn close to their homes and close to their hearts.

The importance of barns meant that a lot of work had to be poured into them to ensure they would be strong enough to stand the test of time. While the timber frame of a barn might be raised up in a day, a farmer might spend months drafting the plans and then cutting all of the pieces to fit together like a giant puzzle.

Learning about people and their lives through their barns takes a little of what Phinney calls barn forensics. He examines how a barn was put together in order to understand the people who did the work. By looking at the quality of the work and the materials used, Phinney can get a rough idea of when the barn was made and the economic status of the farmer.

For example, if the barn is from the 1700s and is held together with nails, it's likely that the builder was well to do, since nails had to be individually forged and were hard to find. If all of the joints fit together very well, that can also be a sign that the farmer put a lot of care and effort - and probably capital - into the barn, whether by his own hand or with the help of professional barn builders.

In addition to the style of the barn telling roughly when it was built, the types of beams present can narrow the range. Earlier barns have timbers that were all hewn by hand with broad axes and all of the joints were custom made by hand.

"What you've got to realize is that when the early settlers came over, they didn't have any industries to support them," Phinney said.

Later the Colonists started to build sawmills and put together more specialized tools to make the work of construction easier. Marks on the wood can distinguish milled timbers from timbers cut with a pit saw from timbers that were hewn by hand, and all of that can narrow the era in which a barn was built. Imperfections in those patterns caused by chipped or dulled tools can also show if different tools were used to make different timbers.

There are also telltale signs for what was going on in some barns. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, many farmers would whitewash the walls around their dairy production because they felt it would make it more sanitary. Looking at all of these clues across many barns can tell a story of the whole region and its agricultural economy. It's not an exact science without other context, because while low-quality construction might mean that the farmer couldn't afford to build better, it might also mean that they had to put up the barn quickly before winter.

For more information about the history of barns, visit www.preservemassbarns.org.