Barns are physical representations of who we were. Now, it’s a matter of retaining the spirit of that culture and our identity. These physical objects tell our story.
There’s rhetorical wit Sam Wickersham enjoys when asked about the 1769 barn on his family farm in the extreme southeast section of Newlin Township, Chester County. “Gold” is his one-word response to the question, “Do you know what built that barn?”
“Gold built that barn,” he repeats.
Barn historian Gregory D. Huber, vice president and archivist for the Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of Pennsylvania, which organized the Chester County tour, says that in all his years examining and documenting barns, Wickersham is the first to claim his barn is made of gold.
A Vanishing Landmark
But the Wickersham barn — among many in historic and agriculturally rich Chester County — is special. It was first documented in Eric Arthur and Dudley Witney’s classic The Barn: A Vanishing Landmark in North America (1972).
Sam’s parents, George and Phyllis Wickersham, bought the 103-acre farm in 1948. “We didn’t have a thing,” says Phyllis, now 89. “Now, our three sons [Sam, Earl and George] each have their own farm, but they all still live at home. George and I have had a wonderful life here, but I keep hearing there aren’t any more nice buildings, that they’re all made of cinder block and aren’t all stone like our [house and barn].”
Built by the Bernard family, the Wickersham’s was first an English Lake District barn in 1769, before an 1809 expansion. Two date-stones affirm the building. The expansion created a double-decker barn, a Quaker concept that resulted in a third level (second deck) above what became drop-down granary storage bins to either side of the first-floor threshing deck (or wagon bay) above the basement level.
The barn, still in agricultural use, also has an extremely rare king post (a vertical post that ties into the roof), one of four identified in the state, in addition to a swing beam (a seemingly free-floating horizontal beam tied into the sides). Decorative rafter tails help water drip away from the barn, so they’re not “just for nice,” an old Pennsylvania Dutch expression.
The English Influence
Barns on the Chester County tour were all English-based. All but one were two-level banked fore-bay barns, characterized by an overhang beyond the stable wall, a Pennsylvania staple.
The only one level (grundsheier or ground) barn was at the Samuel (son of Abiah) Taylor homestead on the west side of Creek Road in East Bradford. Built in 1753, it’s a Lancashire barn, a name attributed to a section just south of the Lake District in extreme northwest England. This barn is the earliest dendro-dated intact rural barn in Pennsylvania. (Dendro dating uses a timber core or slice tested against a master timber list to determine the felling date of a tree.) Now owned and restored by John Milner, a leading historic preservation architect, the all-stone gable-ended barn is used to shelter four Sicilian donkeys.
“We finished it, then realized the barn didn’t sound or smell right,” Milner says. “We were able to get two donkeys (one carrying a foal), and we’ve since adopted a fourth.”
Using a late 19th-century photo of the open barn from the Chester County Historical Society, Milner reconstructed the east-end wall, the threshing floor and the two loft floors, all tornado-damaged in the 1970s. Reconstructing an in-kind original roof frame remains to be done.
“It’s a work of art in the landscape,” Milner says. “We finished [the restoration] almost exactly when 9/11 hit, so we hung a huge American flag from inside for months. Since both doors open to the north and south, you could see it.”
The Walton-Myers Farm
The 1806 Pennock family barn on the west side of Newark Road above Route 926 in West Marlborough Township is a rare Chester County Quaker-style double-decker barn. The oldest such barn dates to 1792 in Devon, about the time the Pennock family arrived. They remained until 1912. Then, Anna (Walton) Myers’ family bought the property, and another farm across the road, both in shadows of London Grove Friends Meeting.
On the oak horizontal wall planks to either side of the main floor, Pennock names are preserved in early carvings dated 1812, 1814 and 1819. There’s also a “DM 1878,” a “John Pontzler Jr. 1879” and the last name “Hannum.” Quaker discipline wouldn’t have allowed for hex signs, so Quaker barns are always free of symbols, yet these carvings do exist.
The basement floor was completely restored by Jim Graff, a general contractor from Christiana, PA. Not to fool anyone, new work is burn-stamped as used, reused or new. “We took a lot of time to study it because we wanted to put the barn back the way it was,” Graff says. “What you do is look at close-by barns to learn what would have likely been here.”
Anna’s husband Mark Myers was concerned that the basement floor be first-rate for animals. He raises Belted Galloway cattle, but also says, “What’s true of houses is true of barns. They represent our culture. Barns are physical representations of who we were. Now, it’s a matter of retaining the spirit of that culture and our identity. These physical objects tell our story. They’re part of our record.”
Two More English Lake District Barns
Sitting a few hundred feet back on the northwest side of Green Valley Road in Newlin Township, the Jenny barn is attributed to the Baldwin family. An inset stone with “HB 1820” matches an 1827 carved date-stone on the homestead. Four basement-level stone arched stable doors face out to a stone fold yard. At the rear, a barn bridge leads to a wagon shed with original corn cribs to either side.
On the southwest side of Glen Willow Road about a mile east of the intersection of Routes 1 and 41 in London Grove Township, the Wilkinson barn is the earliest of its type in southeastern Pennsylvania.
A 1777 L-shaped datestone along with H F W (Wilkinson) is preserved from weather inside a mid- to late-19th-century straw shed addition. The inclusion of a carved fertility symbol indicates a marriage between Hanna and Francis Wilkinson. Inside, there are two original hay holes or shafts. Outside, there’s a ceramic-tile silo.
Perhaps this brief recap will whet your appetite for next year’s tour. -CL-
Tour is Born
Kennett Square-based Safety, Agriculture, Villages and Environment, Inc. (S.A.V.E.) teamed with the Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of PA (HBFF of PA) in June for the 2010 Ag-Stravaganza Farm & Barn Tour. The first-time event figures to become an annual S.A.V.E. project.
“There was such positive energy and interest in both the farms and the historic barns that we’ll definitely do something next year in Chester County,” says S.A.V.E.’s Executive Director Dee Durham. S.A.V.E., a nonprofit, aims to sustain the region’s rural quality of life and community character by influencing infrastructure and land use planning to foster conservation, environmental protection and safety.
The statewide organization has planned a tour of Franklin County brick-ender barns for next summer. “These barns are disappearing faster than we can protect them,” says HBFF of PA’s board president and co-founder Sheila Miller. “These structures are not useful for modern farming, so we have to make them valuable in other ways.”