Last night, I began reading American Barns and Covered Bridges by Eric Sloane. In the author’s note, he talks about the unique qualities of early American architecture, particularly northeastern American architecture, about how it’s a response to both the climate and the available materials. I think Sloane gets a lot of the history wrong and makes a bunch of dubious cultural assumptions, but those errors don’t detract from what he gets right about the buildings themselves, many of which have withstood two centuries of New England weather.
Writing in the 1950s, Sloane talks about how farmers of the time also had to be carpenters. Now, I’ve worked on a lot of farmer-built or modified structures, and in my experience very few farmers can carpent worth a damn. What farmer actually has the time, in any event? Consequently, I have my doubts about 18th century farmers having built the barns we associate with them today. I’m pretty sure that actual carpenters built the barns that still stand.
Nonetheless, whoever built those old New England barns understood some basics about durability.
In the barn project I’m working on, nearly every framing member is chestnut. It was the dominant hardwood in the northeast until the chestnut blight showed up a century ago. That’s hard to believe today, when nearly the only chestnut trees to be found in the New England forest are occasional shoots springing from ancient roots. The shoots grow to 15 feet or 20 feet in height before the chestnut blight finds and kills them back to the roots. I have one outside my back door, and I’ve encountered a grove like that while mountain biking, but I’ve never seen a fully grown tree.
Chestnut is strong, relatively light, easy to work, and most…