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How old is that barn?
1849 Barn in New Gloucester. An offset door and shallow roof pitch are old indicators.
AREA — One of the more interesting areas of barn study is in trying to date barns. Most of the time owners really don't know how old their barn is, or they'll think they know, but details will point otherwise.
The following is my handy-dandy guide to date-clues that will offer ranges or periods when certain details were typically found. In general, the Civil War is a good demarcation line. I normally call any barn built before this as "old," while those built after are considered "new." Anything after 1900 would be classified as "modern." And barns built after World War II incorporate all kinds of "non-traditional" materials, such as concrete block. It's odd, but when it comes to dating or classifying barns, war serves as a good demarcation line.
The following is my guide to gable-entry or "New England" barns, the most common type in our region.
You can tell plenty about a barn's age even before walking inside. Look at the main entrance. Is the door right smack in the middle or is it offset? If offset, it's probably a barn built before the Civil War.
Look at the roof pitch. Interestingly, this is a very good indication of a barn's age. "Old barns" (before the Civil War) will have a shallow roof pitch: one that could easily be walked on. As the decades ticked by here in Maine, barn roofs became ever steeper. A gambrel roof, the steepest of styles, is a dead giveaway a barn was built after 1900. Most of these were built between the first and second world wars, and are almost always "stick framed," that is, built with closely-spaced studs and rafters. Though there is always the exception, some barns were remodeled; you won't find hand-hewn posts and beams in a gambrel roofed barn. Steeper roofs reflect the need for hay storage in a commercial operation. Haylofts got nice and big after 1900, which was still a long way before the advent of baled hay.
Another element of the exterior is the building's trim. Look at the roof trim above the main entrance. Is there a gable overhang, or are the trim boards flush with the building? Flush trim usually indicates an older barn. A gable overhang with nice cornice work is often found later. However, one has to be careful here. Poor farmers had simple buildings, while "gentlemen farmers" had nicer barns. Take this into consideration when evaluating.
Another element before we finish with the exterior, and roofs in particular, are cupolas. Rooftop cupolas came in just before the Civil War, around 1850. The first of these were typically plain-Jane, while latter ones display obviously Victorian overtones in their trim-work and roof elements.
Sometimes you'll see a dormer-like protrusion in a roof along the eaves. This is an interior silo. Maine barns had no silos of any kind until after the Civil War, typically post-1870.
Take a walk inside and look at the frame. Are the timbers hand-hewn or sawn? Generally speaking in our area, hand-hewn timbers indicate a barn before the Civil War. If the timbers are sawn, what kind of saw marks do you see? Straight marks indicate a water-powered sawmill and are older than curved or arched ones, which indicate a circular saw. Circular saws came in after the Civil War with this "changeover" depending on locality.
Take a look at the braces in the frame, the smaller pieces set at a 45-degree angle near the upper end of the posts. Are these sawn or hand-hewn? If they are hand-hewn, the barn is likely very old and probably predates the area's first sawmill.
Look at the boarding, both roof and walls. If you see wide vertical boarding with straight saw marks, it's an old barn, probably built before the Civil War. Narrower boarding with curved saw marks is a later indicator.
Gaze toward the peak and examine the roof interior. Is the boarding vertical or horizontal? Vertical boarding indicates a purlin roof system, while horizontal boarding is used with common rafters. Vertical boarding is an earlier system in our neck of the woods. Again look at the width of the boards and the saw marks. For a date indicator, apply the same rule that you did for wall boarding in regards to saw marks.
Pegs were found in frames up until about World War I. Look at the pegs. Are they perfectly round, or somewhat octagonal or square? Octagonal and square pegs were hand split and are much stronger than perfectly round pegs. Why? A split peg follows the wood grain completely, meaning it is made up of more continuous fibers. Perfectly round pegs (dowels) were shaped by machine and pay no attention to grain structure. Thus, less continuous grain is found.
Putting it all together
None of the above indicators should be used as a sole determinant to date a barn; they need to be put together for the whole picture. Let's say you have a barn with an offset door, shallow roof pitch and hand-hewn frame that’s covered in vertical boarding. This is almost certainly a barn built before the Civil War. The foundation may reveal a more specific period. Look at the granite. Are there finger-sized bore marks along the edge of the stone every few inches? (This is how the stone was split.) If so, this is a post-1830 indicator.
Let’s say another barn has a door smack dab in the center; there is a gable overhang with nice roof trim; the roof is steep; you couldn't walk on it without some sort of staging. It also has a cupola. On the inside, you see horizontal boarding with circular saw marks. This is a barn after the Civil War. You can pinpoint it further by looking at the frame. Are there any pegs? Are they perfectly rounded? Is any of the frame nailed together? These later indications would point to a barn built around 1900.
Don't be surprised if you find a barn full of a hodgepodge of indicators. This is Maine. Struggling farmers built barns from salvaged material all the time. You may find a few hand-hewn timbers mixed in with a circular sawn frame. Go with what is most prevalent in the frame in this situation, using other indicators to reinforce your ultimate decision.
Many barns were remodeled, too. An old frame may have a "modern" roof on it, or one end of the barn may be the original building that had a 30-foot extension put on 50 years later – at which point the entire building got re-roofed and sided, making it appear uniform.
Good detective work is part of what makes poking around barns interesting; no two buildings are the same. Once you know certain details like these age indicators, the building will begin to speak to you and tell its story.
For more on Maine’s barns, visit www.ourbarns.com