Salvaged Timbers Take on New Life at NY Farm

11/3/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

MALTA, N.Y. — They were felled by early settlers, shaped into mighty beams and sheltered livestock, people and farm equipment for almost 200 years.

Silently, they stood sentinel on upstate New York’s rural landscape while the world around them underwent incredible change, from horse and buggies to lunar landings.

When their lesser parts began to fail, the structure they formed, an 18th century English barn, was torn down.

However, their usefulness hadn’t expired, and on Oct. 26 these huge pine and hemlock timbers were reassembled to provide pleasure and protection to future generations while preserving an important aspect of agricultural history.

“Restoring Americana, one barn at a time,” Jim Sweet Jr. said.

That’s what his father’s firm, The Old Barn Company, is doing, and their latest project is a 30-by-40-foot structure at Peter Brooks’ Boulder Rock Farm, a new cut-your-own Christmas tree enterprise in Malta, just outside Saratoga Springs.

Brooks purchased the 15-acre site two years ago and planted his first 500 trees last spring. He plans to add similar numbers each year until all available land is under production. It takes eight to 10 years before trees are ready to cut.

The barn will be the farm’s focal point, where visitors can go to enjoy hot cider and donuts. A portion of it will also house a museum-type exhibit in which people can learn about its history and restoration.

“I’m trying to create an experience here, where people can start family traditions,” Brooks said. “All along that’s what I’ve had in mind. It’s a real Currier & Ives-type scene.”

Brooks has spared no expense in time, money or energy in seeing his project become reality.

“I’m trying to be as historically accurate as possible,” he said. “I had fun doing a lot of research. There’s a lot of books and materials out there.”

Jim Sweet Sr.’s firm does restorations all over the Northeast, and some barns that he’s dismantled have become new homes, or at least parts of them, from Long Island to Oregon and plenty of points in between, such as Wyoming, Texas and California.

“I fight all the time with engineers and building inspectors who question the structural integrity of old beams,” he said. “I tell them, This barn has been around 150 years and homes in some new developments are already falling apart.”

Sweet saved all the original posts and beams he could from Brooks’ old barn, patched up spots that needed it and created new oak pegs to hold reshaped mortise-and-tenon joints in place.

Brooks’ only modern concession is a concrete floor, which early settlers wouldn’t have used.

“They just put logs on the ground and started building up,” he said. “But that allowed moisture to get in. This barn isn’t going to have that problem.”

However, the concrete won’t be visible to visitors. He is going to cover it with wooden planking, to give it an old-style look.

Brooks is even incorporating large barn doors that swing out, instead of the sliding box-car style that came along later and are easier to open when there’s two feet of snow on the ground. Hinges will be wrought iron, and the barn will have white pine siding with a cedar shake roof.

The building is the first thing that farm visitors will see.

He’s planting both Fraser fir and Canaan fir.

“I got them from a place in the mountains of West Virginia,” he said. “That’s where they were discovered. I’m not going to be the Walmart of Christmas trees by selling 500 trees a year.”

It’s more about living a dream, his own, and inspiring people to reach their dreams, too.

A Connecticut native, Brooks has a degree in natural resources from Cornell University’s agriculture school. He earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture and regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania and previously worked for the Audubon Society as a teaching naturalist, followed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Lands and Forests.

Then his career took a 180-degree turn, and today he’s a Merrill-Lynch financial adviser.

“But I’ve always wanted to have a farm. I like the term, Renaissance man,’ “ Brooks said, smiling. “I’ve had a lot of fun doing this.”

By restoring Brooks’ barn, Sweet is making sure that people will always have a place to get in out of the cold, snow, wind or anything else that Old Man Winter sends their way.

“It’s back up,” he said, admiring the structure. “It’s going to outlast any of us.”

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