Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Barn Find In Conestoga Country

Like a lot of folks that grew up on a farm, I’ve spent a fair amount of time working in, on, and around barns.  At the time, I didn’t realize the positive memories these places would push deep into my mind.  Perhaps it’s because most of those wooden frameworks were dusty (and sometimes overly aromatic) insect havens that were poorly lit, spattered with cobwebs, and insufferably hot – especially in hay season.  Even so, from photographers and advertisers to publishers and event coordinators, rustic barns can be a big attraction today.  They stand as weather-beaten testimonies of agrarian communities, family ties, fond memories, and sweat-driven dreams.  They can be a respite from the wind, a welcome relief from the rain, and the birthplace of new life.  

Many years ago, my wife captured dad’s old barn on canvas.

The bigger barns on my dad and granddad’s farms are both gone.  Victims of gravity and time, the only place they exist now is in my mind.  I can still see the corn cribs, mangers, feed rooms, hay drops, and oak plank stalls.  I have an old chair rescued from one family barn and a pair of doors with hand-forged hinges taken from another; special reminders of all-but-forgotten days.  Even so, these places from our past hold more than memories.  Time marches on and along the way, we’re sometimes fortunate to find and recover things that bring us closer to our past and, just maybe, a bit closer to remembering who we are and where we’ve come from.  Such was the case, when the new owner of an old bank barn happened upon a forgotten treasure.

Bank barns allow ground level access to the structure from two different levels.

Bank barns are amazing structures and the state of Pennsylvania is full of them.  Perched on the side of a knoll or hill, many have stood for generations.  Some remain in use while others sit empty, relegated to service as a cultural landmark of sorts.  Still others harbor countless relics from days gone by.  It’s this category that best defines a particular barn I learned of earlier this year.  It’s located near the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.  For some, it may have appeared to be just another outbuilding.  Decade after decade, though, it quietly held a secret.  A secret tied to another place, another time, and another life. 
When I first set my eyes on the barn, it was sagging in places and clearly showing its age.  No longer could it keep the wind and rain as much at bay.  It just wasn’t as strong as it once was.  Yet, in some ways, the character it holds today makes it even more attractive; enough so that, by the summer of 2014, the owner was determined to help get the building back in a better state of repair.  Old hay was removed.  Ages of clutter, discarded implement parts, old wheels, rusted wire, window frames, and other debris were gone through.  As he shared his story, the owner said he had been working in a side shed attached to the barn and noticed some planks stored above the log rafters.  Climbing up to examine the boards, the dim light revealed something more to him.  Next to the rough sawn lumber were the isolated remains of a Conestoga wagon bed.  The heavy pair of sideboards were carefully removed and brought out into the daylight.  They were covered in dust as well as a century’s worth of animal droppings and other debris.  The exteriors of both panels appeared to be coated with white paint.  We’re told that a good part of this light coloring washed away when a garden hose was used to clean the boards.  After looking at the sideboards firsthand, I’m convinced that this white tone was likely the original blue pigment that had heavily oxidized, essentially turning to powder.  Fortunately, enough blue lead was firmly stuck to the wood that limited amounts can still be seen in some areas, including sections on and around the tool box.

These early sideboards were part of a mid-sized Conestoga wagon. 

In addition to the blue paint, we found the initials – I. K. – stamped into the largest metal band surrounding the tool box.  Eight sets of bow clips line each side. Hand forged ironing, lock chains, and hasps designed to hold the box to the gear are all substantially intact.  The sideboards curve upward and stretch 13 feet in length at the top and 11 ½ feet at the bottom.  They measure a full 3 feet in depth at the ends with the center section narrowing to 27 ½ inches.
In classic Conestoga styling, the side panels are formed by three longitudinal rails intersected by upright, chamfered standards mortised through the rails.  This particular design is engineered to allow the sides, ends, and bottom to be separated or knocked down for shipment, storage, or other uses.
We’ll need more time to determine if additional provenance can be found.  All in all, though, it’s just the kind of pre-Civil War wagon discovery that reminds us it’s still possible to find substantially original, early 19th century pieces.  While true barn finds have become a rarity these days, patience and persistence have a way of opening doors we might otherwise pass by.  The old bank barn may be weathered and tired but it has done its job – delivering some of America’s rarest transportation history to a place of respect and preservation in the 21st century.