This month on Brave Little State, a question about the many barns in Vermont that are left in a suspended state of disrepair.
If you drive by Bobolink Farm in East Montpelier, you’ll notice that a lot of the structures have seen better days. All that’s left of the old dairy barn is the foundation — right now there are sheep living in it.
There’s an old milking parlor that used to connect to the barn; part of the roof is cut off and there’s this big arc of metal just jutting out into the open air.
“It’s pretty much the only building left standing of any value on this property,” says owner Bruce Howlett, who works for the United States Department of Agriculture when he's not raising sheep.
Bruce and his wife, Carol Dickson, bought this farm three years ago, and they’ve been trying to figure out what to do with one building in particular. Although it’s hard to even call it a building.
“It's the remnants of a 1964 renovation of a 1912 barn which replaced a, I don't know, 1840 barn. Which is pretty typical for these things,” he says.
Bruce describes the building: “There's basically one level left and the upper three levels have been removed; they were just sawed right off. It's like someone went around with a chainsaw and sawed all the beams off. So now we have these tall posts holding up a flat platform, with a lot of debris piled on it. And you can see that part of it is collapsed, and part of is leaning, and all of it looks like crap, because it is."
For better or for worse, barns that “look like crap” are kind of a fixture of the Vermont landscape. Drive around for long enough and you’ll see one listing to the side or crumbling in on itself.
It’s a phenomenon that piqued the curiosity of this month’s question-asker. Janette Shaffer, of Middlesex, wanted to know why it is that so many barns in this state are left to weather and age past the point of no return:
Janette is a U.S. citizen, but she grew up in Germany. She says the landscape there is similar to Vermont’s, but the culture around signs of decay — like old buildings — is decidedly different. Janette told us about a municipal agency in the city of Mörfelden, where she lived as an adult, that basically enforced tidiness and order. The Ordnungsamt, as it was called, was in charge of things like sanitation inspections, noise complaints and parking rules. They once threatened to give Janette a ticket because she had weeds growing in the sidewalk cracks in front of her house.
Ten years later, when Janette moved to Vermont, she went on a road trip around the Northeast Kingdom, and was struck by all the aging barns and structures visible from the road. But she says they didn’t bother her.
"I didn't find it bothersome to see the barns falling down," she says. "I just thought it was part of the New England landscape."
And a lot of us feel this way, right? Some of the barns in this state are like old growth trees. And while relatively few of us are owners of Vermont barns, if you live here or spend time here, you probably have a kind of personal barn that you like to keep an eye on. Maybe you drive by it on your commute, or it’s on your neighbor’s property. And maybe it has been slumping just a little further to the side over the years.
While we were working on this episode, we put a call out to you, our audience, asking you to share photos of the barns in your lives. And we got a ton of responses:
To answer Janette’s question about why these structures get neglected, we talk to the people who own some of these barns, the people who fix them up and the people who take them down. And yes, we are also going to wax philosophical about the Vermont landscape.
Ag industry in decline
A big part of the answer to Janette’s question has to do with the history of farming in Vermont.
“Many of those older barns are reaching the end of their what we might call their sort of service life,” says Tom Visser, a professor of historic preservation at the historic preservation program in the history department at the University of Vermont. (A lot of history!)
Tom is the author of Field Guide to New-England Barns and Farm Buildings. He says the history of Vermont farming has been one of transitions, from sheep farming to dairy and cheese — “Cheese, of course, gets better with age,” he says.
And so do barns, kind of. Tom says as the industry changed, barns were adapted to new uses.
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“They of course were not just typically torn down at the time, because they could be converted for other purposes,” he says.
And that meant a good number of them survived. Here’s an estimate from Devin Colman, the state’s architectural historian.
“We tend to say, you know, between 5,000 and 10,000,” he says. "Which is still very broad, but definitely in the thousands.”
And while that number might sound high, there are way, way fewer farms than there used to be. Devin says there were around 11,000 small dairy farms in this state in the 1940s — but by the turn of the 21st century, that number was down to 1,000.
“So that's 10,000 small farms that have either shut down or merged into larger, more corporate-scale farming,” he says. “And those smaller operations, they don't need all those barns, you know. It's simply redundancy. And if it's not an active dairy operation or farming operation, there's not an incentive to invest and maintain the building. So a lot of times they fall to the wayside."
So basically, a lot of farms stopped being farms, which meant there was less of a reason to maintain the barns, even though they were still there on people’s property. And by the way, our question-asker Janette was totally clued in to this:
“I think it just shows the history of where New England was and where it sadly might be going,” she said. “Probably the biggest reason for these barns falling down is economic … that also just shows where the state of Vermont farming might be.”
Before we get too doom and gloomy about all this, we should point out that there are still working farms and dairies that are making perfectly good use of their old barns.
Take Kempton Farm, in the hills of Peacham. From the road, their main barn looks a little tired. But a curious visitor will find that it’s in fine working order.
“It was built in 1897, the original barn burned,” George Kempton said on a recent sunny afternoon. “It’s a little over 200 feet, and it’s three floors high. And nowadays, this is just a dry cow heifer barn — bred heifers and dry cows are what are here, and the milkers are in that new free-stall barn, over by the milking parlor.”
George’s family farm supplies milk to Cabot Co-operative Creamery, and they’re the single source of milk for Jasper Hill Farm’s award-winning Clothbound Cheddar.
The Kemptons have done plenty of work on their old barn over the years. George is particularly proud of their upkeep of the barn’s two cupolas.
“We put a metal roof on, it was shingles [before] he says. “And we repair those cupolas, keep ‘em going, and it’s hard to get anyone to do that work, so we can do it.”
But he says with everything else going on at the farm, they just don’t have time for preventative maintenance.
“I’m ashamed to say, it probably gets maintained when it has to be," he says. "Maintaining the old barn is only done when we think there’s a problem."
George has plans to replace a rotting post this summer, and he’s always keeping an eye on those cupolas.
All of which is to say, just because a barn looks old, maybe a little tattered around the edges, it doesn’t always mean it’s being neglected. So don’t judge.
Mechanics of decay
But like we learned from Devin Colman, when barns aren’t part of a diary or a farm? That’s when they’re vulnerable.
Ken Epworth runs an outfit in Windsor called The Barn People. They do barn restoration and dismantling. And Ken has seen a lot of neglected barns over the years.
“They [barn owners] think it’s a lawn ornament,” he says. “They really do. It's just, well, ‘My grandfather built it,’ you know, and just like they watch grandfather get old and fall down, you look at the barn, and it really doesn't even occur to them to know that it's worth money, or that it's dangerous, or it's going to be a lot of work to clean it up when it falls down.”
Ken says that on a technical level, there are two things on a barn that typically go first: the roof and the foundation. “And they’re the two most expensive problems to solve,” he says.
Roofs were nailed down, most of the time, Ken says, “and the tin heats up and then freezes and heats up. So you get this movement in the nail of expansion and contraction. Finally it just lets go on a good wind and the tin comes off.”
Ken adds that rusty barn roofs might look "beautiful on the landscape — but that rust is corrosion … It’s on its last legs.”
But roofs are a lot easier to fix than foundations. When it comes to those, Ken says the old barns built into hill slopes are especially vulnerable.
“They didn't know anything about drainage in those days. So what would have been involved is a ditch that was 2 feet deeper than the floor of the barn floors, usually dirt, so that all that water could drain around the barn in a big horseshoe, so to speak.”
When the water table changed with the seasons, silt would come in through the foundation stones.
“So you had frozen manure water for the cows to stand in all winter, and then you get frost heaves that are moving interior posts up and down all the time, and they're rotting at the bottom because they're just on a couple of flat rocks.”
These are the kinds of things that compound over the years — maybe the roof caves in, or the interior beams start to rot and give way. And if you own a barn, and you want to slow the march of time, it’s really expensive.
“I can tell you for a big, you know, multi-story gambrel roof barn, it costs more than $30,000 to replace just the roof on that barn. And that’s just the roof,” says Caitlin Corkins, who administers Vermont’s Barn Preservation Grant Program, which awards people money to fix up their old barns.
“You know, they are icons of what it is to be Vermont. And there was a recognition that we were losing barns and and we didn't want to, we wanted to do something to preserve them,” she says.
The grants can be up to $15,000. But whatever the grant is, the barn owner has to match it out of their own pocket. Caitlin says that when people have really big projects, they sometimes come back for multiple grants. It’s preservation for smaller barns, she says, that can be harder to fund.
“Especially with the smaller, sort of more specific, purpose-built kind of buildings that are harder to adapt to some kind of new use, that's … why they're more at risk,” she says, “because to invest in them just because they're interesting part of the landscape, it's harder to justify that."
And this is the kind of thing that can really put a barn owner in a bind. Because it’s expensive to repair an old barn — but it’s also expensive to take one down.
“We talked to two different contractors who told us basically it was going to cost $40,000 to get rid of it,” says Bruce Howlett, the owner of the very sad barn in East Montpelier, says of his troubled barn.
“It's a lot of money, and one of them was going to basically do the same thing you do for industrial buildings, which is bash the whole thing into a series of dumpsters and send it up to Coventry to the landfill … And the other contractor was going to take it out in the field and burn it,” Bruce says. “Which still ended up costing a lot of money because there's a lot of labor involved.”
So for now, Bruce’s barn is just sitting there, getting sadder all the time.
And there’s another financial hurdle: insurance. Some insurance companies don’t want anything to do with decrepit barns. This can make it hard sell your property, if the buyer needs a mortgage; it can also make it tough to insure your main house.
“That was actually a major major liability for people,” Bruce says of other buyers who had shown interest in the farm before he and his wife bought it. “And it still is. We looked for insurance and there was only one carrier that would cover us. So these old wrecks are more than just an eyesore. It's a liability and a problem.”
One other thing about finances. Our question-asker Janette had heard there was some sort of tax-related reason that people choose to let their barns decay in place. Long story short, not really.
According to Vermont’s Tax Commissioner, Kaj Samsom, if a barn is being used for farming it can qualify for Vermont’s Current Use program. (The program is meant to slow the development of Vermont’s farm and forestlands.) If that’s the case, then the barn would be exempt from property taxes.
“But even in that scenario, we couldn't find any incentives in keeping something up if by all other accounts the logical thing to do is to take it down,” Samsom says.
If the barn isn’t in the Current Use program, Commissioner Samsom says you would be paying some property taxes, though he says a falling-down barn probably won’t have a huge impact on your tax bill.
Cate Hill Orchard
If you get lost in Greensboro, in the Northeast Kingdom, you just might come across Cate Hill Orchard. It’s off the side of a winding, muddy road.
Its barn is a big-two story structure from 1870. It’s built into a hillside, so the ground floor is actually sloped down. Inside are sheep, one of Cate Hill Orchard’s main products. They’re raised for both meat and milk. The barn itself needs some work.
“This is a high drive here, and you can see it almost makes you seasick to look at it,” says owner Josh Karp. “See how it’s kind of listing?”
The high drive is a covered ramp, and it’s the only way to get to the second floor of Josh’s barn.
“Frost has gotten into it and it's starting to heave and fall basically fall apart,” Josh says.
Josh got one of those preservation grants we mentioned earlier — it’ll cover half of the costs to fix the foundation around the high drive. All together, he’s doing $13,500 worth of work.
“You could easily spend a hundred grand without batting an eye,” he says. “And it's one of those things where we want to stabilize it, but that's like, ‘And then we'll do this this year, or next year, and then maybe we'll do another project in five years.’”
This is actually Josh’s second preservation grant. Back in 2004, a grant helped him replace the barn roof. For Josh and his wife Maria, all the maintenance makes sense, because the barn is their main agricultural structure. But he says if the barn weren’t part of their farming operation, it would be harder to justify fixing it.
“I mean, to be honest, there’s a lot of impracticality about using this space,” Josh admits. “[But] I think it's just like this common cultural heritage that, yeah, I mean, once they're gone, they're gone.”
And Devin Colman, the state’s architectural historian, feels the same way.
“Our goal is to save the building in its original location, its historic context, its relationship to the landscape in that area,” Devin says. “And when you start taking them apart and mixing timbers and selling parts, you lose a lot of the history.”
What Devin is alluding to here is this whole other economy around aging barns, which involves taking them apart and selling the choice beams and boards.
And this is where Ken Epworth, of The Barn People, comes back in. Ken, to remind you, both restores and dismantles old barns — but more so the latter.
“You know, at my age I've definitely seen an awful lot of barns go down, and way more than ones I've restored,” Ken says.
Ken does most of his work in Vermont these days, but when he was starting out, decades ago, he’d take down Vermont barns and rebuild them or reprise them all over the country: Idaho, California, Telluride, Puget Sound, the Florida mangroves.
He opens a big portfolio to a picture of a barn-like mansion in Sun Valley, Idaho, built with materials from Vermont barns.
“Nine barns and a covered bridge for two people,” he explains. “I mean, it came out nice, it was a lot of fun. We built a covered bridge from scratch.”
Ken knows how this looks to some people.
“I used to take a lot of grief from writers and stuff about carting away the state's architectural history,” he says. “But as I got older and got more experienced, I realized that you have to put your money where your mouth is. If you think this barn should stay here and I'm telling you it needs all these repairs, you want to pay for it?”
And sometimes, Ken says taking a barn down is the only way to preserve its legacy.
“The problem is, is that if it weren’t for me, it’s either rotting, or it’s already fallen in,” he says.
Ken is glad he’s doing more work in Vermont these days. But he wishes the barns he rebuilds were more visible to the public.
“Because people get to see it, you know, and enjoy it,” he says. “Half the time I'm on some wealthy guy's mile-long driveway, and no one gets to see it ... So it’s a disappearance of Vermont's architectural heritage, sometimes even though it's still in Vermont. Like, we did one on the south side of Camel’s Hump — beautiful barn, beautiful setting, beautiful home, statues everywhere, tennis courts, all this. But you know, other than their friends, who's going to see it?”
It’s a little sad, picturing the hand-hewn beams in these old Vermont barns ending up in western ski chalets, or tucked away on private Vermont estates. And Ken agrees. But he says it’s on all of us to change that.
“It's like the polar bears,” he says. “You know, people whine about the polar bears now, but they've been killing them off for a century. It’s the same thing with the barns.”
It’s hard to imagine everyone who feels a connection with Vermont’s forgotten barns — watching them weather, measuring time against them — it’s hard to imagine all of us just chipping in to do the repairs Ken is talking about. So for now, we should probably just enjoy them while they’re still standing — or falling.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Journalism Fund, and from VPR members. If you like this show, consider becoming one.
Our editor is Lynne McCrea, and our theme music is by Ty Gibbons.
Other music in this episode was used through a Creative Commons license: