MIDDLETOWN SPRINGS — What do you do when you’ve got an old barn on your property threatening to collapse? Some call Luke Larson.
Larson purchased Green Mountain Timber Frames over the winter. The business, started by Dan Mckeen in the 1970s, takes apart pre-1900 barns — and other structures — and restores them, often turning them into houses or other buildings far from where they were first raised.
He’s got a new facility on West Road sitting on a 51-acre patch of land and has high hopes for its future.
“I’ve been operating out of basically my home and a rented barn, so we’re very excited to be here and have our own workspace,” he said Monday. The business also has a website, www.greenmountaintimberframes.com.
Larson, who grew up in Wells, isn’t new to Green Mountain Timber Frames. He started working for McKeen in high school, and after leaving to earn degrees in sociology, psychology and philosophy, decided he’d rather be working with wood and chisels.
The business has three full-time employees and one part-time. Larson said he expects to add at least one more full-timer soon.
The typical restoration procedure goes like this: Larson hears about someone with an old barn they want or have to get rid of. He buys the structure and takes it apart by hand. Larger barns he dismantles with the help of machinery for safety reasons. This takes about two weeks. Each part is labeled and moved to his workshop to be cleaned up.
Larson said if a barn can’t be fully restored, it’ll be salvaged for parts and used to shore up another historic structure.
“Most of the time they’re being turned into homes,” he said. “Occasionally a barn, sometimes a garage, often the great room of a house.”
Sometimes, as with a barn he’s working on from Brandon, the building will go back up where it was taken down. Other times, he and his team get to travel. Larson said he’s gone as far as Washington state. Often, though, the barns stay in New England.
Joshua Klein, owner and editor of Mortise and Tenon Magazine, in Sedgwick, Maine, said he bought a barn frame from Larson recently to use as a workshop and is pleased with the results. The building he got was originally built in Pawlet sometime in the 1830s.
Klein said there’s quite a few people across America who enjoy restoring old buildings, and he’s “worried about them being bulldozed to put up a new, plastic house.”
“They were built to last 400 years or more,” said Klein.
Larson’s concerns run along similar lines.
“Right now there’s an abundance, there’s more falling down than we have time to save,” he said.
Larson said his blog is what’s been driving a lot of his business lately. Just about every project comes with a story, which the blog helps tell.
“Doing the blogging is what’s really expanded my market...word of mouth, a good reputation. I like telling the stories I hear,” he said.
He recalls taking apart a barn in Benson that was in the owner’s family since 1900. He said the family’s matriarch, a woman in her late 80s, come out to tell him the barn’s history. The family had a mortgage on the farm during the Great Depression.
“They couldn’t make the payments, they went to the bank, she said it was the Bank of Orwell, they worked out something with the bank so they could keep up with the interest and forego the rest until times improved,” said Larson. “She was telling me it was still a struggle, so they planted one of the corn fields to cabbage and her grandfather would drive around every weekend with a farm truck full of cabbages hocking cabbages trying to make the farm payments.”
The woman got fairly emotional relating her tales, which Larson said is fairly common.
“It’s often hard for them to let it go, and I was very grateful,” he said. “The alternative is to let (the barn) fall in.”
With just about every project, Larson keeps in touch with the people he’s purchased from, sending them photos of the barn’s new life elsewhere.
Some of his favorite projects are “corn cribs” — small barns put together quickly to store food.
“They’re so cool when you think about it,” he said. “Arriving here in the 1700s and 1800s, you’ve got to clear your field and grow enough food before winter, and what’s the most important thing? Protecting that food, so they built these beautiful little barns, they put a lot of care into them.”
Corn cribs have vents to dry the corn, but their builders also knew how to create closable flaps in case a storm came up suddenly. Larson said these old builders worked with as few metal nails as possible, and used whatever wood they had available. He often comes across American chestnut, which has gone extinct.
Often Larson and crew will find old tools they’re not quite sure how to use, or old historical items.
One of his employees, Matt Peschl, who’s worked at Green Mountain Timber Frames for 20 years, once found something quite interesting in a barn they were dismantling.
“He heard something fall, it had fallen all the way into the basement. It was a coin from Ireland from 1642,” Larson said. “So that was really exciting. We gave it to our client and she was particularly excited because she was of Irish descent.”
More often the sorts of things his crew will find are old barrels, tools and similar artifacts. Now that he has the space, he says he’d like to put up a barn or two on the new property and display these items for visitors and school groups.
The goal is not only to preserve the buildings, but the heritage that comes with them. Larson said he especially enjoys the oddities they find in the craftsmanship.
“We’ll come across a mortise in the middle of a beam, occasionally we’ll realize it’s a mistake,” he said. “We’ve done it with our own timber frames… that’s fun to come across and be reminded these people were human just like us, building their barns.”
Larson’s blog can be found online at https://bit.ly/2E7vUYC