The barn raising
From Gene Logsdon (1983)
The summer tornado that touched down in Holmes County left a path of destruction cut as cleanly into the landscape as a swath mown through the middle of a hayfield. The wind plucked up giant oaks, tulip poplars, ashes, and maples and laid them down in crisscrossed, splintered chaos through the Amish woodland. With the same nicety for borderline definition, the tornado sliced through Amish farmsteads, capriciously reducing barns to kindling while ignoring buggy sheds, chicken coops, corncribs, and houses close by. In the twenty-minute dance that the tornado performed before exiting into the wings of the sky as abruptly as it had come, it destroyed at least fifteen acres of mature forest a hundred years or more in the growing, and four barns that represented the collected architectural wisdom of several centuries of rural tradition.
But what followed in the wake of the tornado during the next three weeks was just as awesome as the wind itself. In that time—three weeks—the forest devastation was sawed into lumber and transformed into four big new barns. No massive effort of bulldozers, cranes, semi-trucks, or the National Guard was involved. The surrounding Amish community rolled up its sleeves, hitched up its horses and did it all. Nor were the barns the quick-fix modern structures of sheet metal hung on posts stuck in the ground. They were massive three-story affairs of post-and-beam framing, held together with hundreds of hand-hewn mortises and tenons.
A building contractor, walking through the last of the barns to be completed, could only shake his head in disbelief. Even with a beefed-up crew, it would have taken him most of the summer to build this barn alone and it would have cost the farmer $100,000, if in fact he could have found such huge girder beams at any price.
The Amish farmer who was the recipient of this new barn smiled. The structure, complete with donated hay, grain, and animals to replace all that was destroyed by the storm, cost him “about thirty thousand dollars, out-of-pocket money”—most of that funded by his Amish Church’s own internal insurance arrangement. “We give each other our labor,” he said. “That’s our way. In the giving, nothing is lost, though, and much is gained. We enjoy barn raisings. So many come to work that no one has to work very hard. And we get in a good visit.”
The outsider listened, dumbfounded. The barn raising had already shaken his faith in the religion of Modern Progress in which he had been raised. He had come to see a folksy rural skill of the nineteenth century and, instead, witnessed a practical example of how to survive rather elegantly in the modern world.
The first day, the Amish installed the girder posts, girders, sills, joists, and flooring over the lower level where the livestock would be housed. The oak girders were sixteen inches square and fourteen feet long, hoisted up on the girder posts by human muscle heaving in perfect unison. The joists, half the size of the girders they rested on, were mortised into the sill beams over the foundation. Floorboards were laid down over the joists. Then the Amish carpenters installed the horse stalls, cow stanchions, calf pens, bullpens, pigpens, mangers, feed boxes, hay and straw chutes, all with so lavish a use of wood as to make a cost-conscious modern builder weep.
While this work was in progress, the most skilled carpenters were sawing to size the timbers that would become the post-and-beam skeleton of the barn, then marking and cutting the mortises and tenons by which the posts and beams would be put together into “bents.” (A bent is the basic structural unit of a post-and-beam barn. It consists of at least two vertical posts connected by two horizontal beams, with additional braces notched in at each corner for greater strength and rigidity.) The mortise holes were first bored round with brace and bit, then squared to size with mortise chisels and corner chisels, the work moving along rapidly. All the while there was steady conversation about the Yoders’ new baby, the price of horses at the Kidtron auction, the possibility that the Stolfuss family might not make it from Indiana to the raising in the morning.
“The raising draws all the attention,” one of the carpenters told a watching outsider. “But this is where the real work is done, measuring and cutting the joints accurately. The raising is just putting pieces of a puzzle together.”
The procedure for joining timbers properly has changed little for three centuries. A hole is bored through both mortise and tenon and a wooden pin, of white oak or black locust, is driven through the hole to lock the two beams together. The pins, before use, are dried in a little makeshift kiln kept fired nearby. Once it is driven into a joint, the dry pin swells slightly in normally humid air, while the greenwood beams dry and shrink slightly over time. The resulting bond is so tight that, even after a century, the pins will sometimes be impossible to drive out. For joining wooden structural members, no method has improved upon this classic mortised, tenoned, pinned joint.
There was no detailed plan of the barn construction, although the building was large and complex. “The blueprints are right up here,” a carpenter said, pointing to his head. “Not so difficult as you would think. There’s a standard way these barns go together and the overall design does not change much from farm to farm. The size of the barn determines the number and dimensions of the bents, and the dimensions of the bents rule the dimensions of the posts and beams. It was all figured out long ago.”
By six-thirty the next morning, a traffic jam of buggies clogged the country road to the barn raising. The main bents were all laid out in proper order on the barn floor, ready for raising. Every Amish male who could swing one carried a hammer, and they stood around in expectant little knots talking quietly as the sun poked up over the cornfields. In the house rose the sound of female voices, the warmth of their chatter alone enough to start the great pots of food to cooking. “You mean to tell me there will be a barn standing here before the sun goes down?” a visitor asked in disbelief. “Oh, yes,” one of the carpenters replied. “Fact is, you’ll be able to put hay in it by noon.” The visitor laughed, thinking he was being teased.
At precisely 7:00 a.m., the head carpenter, or “boss of the raising,” as he is called, shouted in German the traditional order to begin, and without fanfare, seemingly with great casualness, some twenty bearded farmers poled the first bent into upright position, while twenty more held it with ropes from falling on over the edge of the foundation. Just as unceremoniously, twenty more workers quickly poled the second bent up and immediately the more agile of the young men climbed up the beams like monkeys, jiggling and fitting the connecting beams into their proper mortises, and driving in the locking pins. The barn raising was under way.
The casualness was deceptive. “I couldn’t sleep a wink last night,” the boss of the raising admitted later. An older man nodded understandingly. “Ja. You know I had to quit bossing on doctor’s orders. Too hard on my blood pressure.”
What appeared at first as a rather distracted and unplanned bustling about on the part of several hundred workers was, in fact, an operation being run with almost military precision. Under the boss of the raising were two assistant bosses, and under them was a group of men recognized for their skills in particular departments of barn construction. Each of them headed up a crew, while the majority of the workers simply joined a crew according to the type of work they felt most comfortable doing, or where they saw another hand was needed. Skill and sometimes age determined the choice. Nimble, younger men worked high in the framing, fitting the beams together. Older men mortised and built doors. Strong men hoisted up rafters and beams. Little boys gathered up waste wood and piled it out of the way. Besides the many crews of polers, siding nailers, roofers, and rafterers, there was a special group framing doorways and windows, another soldering and hanging spouting, another putting together a new hay track out of the wreckage of the old one, to be hung later high under the roof peak across the haylofts.
All this work went on simultaneously at various sections of the barn. Yet few orders were given. The men knew what to do. The boss of the raising and his assistants and crew captains merely orchestrated the flow of work, like band directors leading skilled musicians. The barn grew, organically, in one cacophonous symphony of shining saw and pounding hammer.
One worker was using a skill saw powered by a gasoline motor. Sometimes the motor would not start, and he would glare at it. When it did start, he grimaced at the noise and smoke it produced, clearly uncomfortable with this rather un-Amish tool. Why, he was asked, did the Amish go to such great lengths to avoid electricity when the gas-powered replacement seemed religiously just as repugnant? The farmer pushed his hat back and toed the saw, now lying on the ground. “The Bible says we must not be yoked to the world,” he explained. “The electric, it yokes you. This gas motor—I can take it or leave it. And to tell the truth, right now I’d just as soon leave it.”
Another bystander who heard the question wanted to help answer it. His mother was originally Amish, he said, and was shunned by Amish society when she married an outsider. “They even had a funeral service for her. Her parents never spoke to her again.” But he was not bitter about that, he said. He respected the Amish. “Electricity is a yoke, you know. They think if they let it in their houses, the temptation would be overwhelming to get all the gadgets electricity encourages, like the rest of us do.”
The issue reminded him of an experience he had when he was younger. “I used to work with my Amish kinfolk. I helped in the threshing. The bishop had a big lug-wheeled steam engine to run the thresher, and every time he drove it to another farm, those steel lugs would tear up the road and the county commissoners would raise hell and send him a bill. One day when I arrived at the threshing, there sat the steam engine with the lugs removed, replaced by rubber treading over the steel wheels. I always kidded my kinfolk about their ways, so I said, ‘Heavens! Rubber on your wheels, Bishop! God’s gonna getcha now.’ He laughed, but took it kind of serious, too. ‘Well, we prayed over the matter and studied it a long time,’ he explained. ‘We finally decided that it was not the rubber itself God was against, but riding on air. Only angels should ride on air!’”
Around the edges of the little army of Amish workers gathered the outsiders—the “English”—most of them brandishing cameras. A television crew set up to record a scene to lighten the evening news.
“Unreal,” the photographers kept murmuring as they clicked their camera shutters. The Amish elders stayed busy asking the English not to take pictures. The English stayed busy trying to sneak a few anyway.
“But what is wrong with taking a few photographs?” some of the bolder photographers protested.
“A picture leads to pride,” the elders tried to explain. “It is against our religion.”
The Amish and the English engaged in a staring standoff then, exuding mutual bewilderment. The English could not understand a religion that viewed images of reality with suspicion. The Amish could not understand a religion for which the image was the reality.
The head carpenter’s noon prediction was wrong. The barn was ready for hay by eleven, an hour ahead of schedule. He nodded with delight when the English visitor who had laughed at his prediction apologized. “We’ll be finished by three,” he said, and this time the outsider did not laugh.
The speed of the raising was not attributable just to the large number of workers. A good third of them were standing around talking or eating at any given time. The secret was that the men not only knew what they were doing without being told, but they always knew what to do next. The work flowed. The workers were extremely “handy,” a word the head carpenter liked to use. Because of their lifestyle, the Amish knew how to use their hands, their whole bodies, in physical work. They could perform physical tasks in less than half the time and energy it might take a typical office worker, or even a typical blue-collar worker trained to do only one job well. Watching the Amish workers, one observer said he no longer believed it necessarily took one hundred thousand slaves twenty years to build the Great Pyramid, even if it was 482 feet tall and 775 feet square. With a bit of practice, a hundred thousand Amishmen could have built it in less than five years, he decided.
In addition to individual handiness, the Amish farmers were taught by their tradition how to work efficiently together. At the tedious task of nailing on the hundreds of siding boards, for example, there was no eager elbowing for room on the wall, each man intent upon seeing how many boards he individually could nail down. Instead, crews of older men, away from the barn, marked each board with a chalk line indicating the place where the board crossed the beam it would be nailed to. Then these men started nails along the chalk line. Other men quickly carried away these boards, invariably three at a time, and passed them up to younger men clinging to the beam frames. They, in turn—one above, one below—slapped the boards in place with one hand and drove the preset nails in with a hammer in the other hand, the siding going on in almost a continuous wave, as if it were being slowly unrolled.
By three o’clock, the barn was finished, even to the hanging of the doors. The workers hitched up their buggies and went home to tend to their livestock. By 7:00 p.m. they had all returned, this time with wagons laden with hay and grain, pigs in crates, horses and cows in tow on ropes, to fill the barn with the feed and animals the tornado had taken away. When that work was completed, more food was served amid convivial rejoicing—as close to a party-like celebration as the Amish ever come.
Two English farmers, leaving the party to which they had been invited, walked silently to their car. The summer night rolled quietly over Holmes County on the wings of fireflies. One of the farmers finally spoke. “Makes you wonder if some of them folks might not consider praying for a tornado once and a while.”
See also Gene’s Oxen Power for Family Farms
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming