I suspect the barns were the real hearts of yesterday’s Maine farms. They not only provided housing for the livestock, they were the storage and maintenance center for all of the myriad tools and machinery it took to run the operation.
When the Curran Homestead was established in 1991, what was once a bustling dairy barn and been idle for many years. The only livestock were mice and the numerous barn swallows nesting in the rafters, and the entire building slumped tiredly on rotten sills; maintenance a thing of the past. Broken windows and doors askew let in almost as much weather as the crumbling roof, and the tall building, shedding clapboard and shingles, leaned alarmingly back from the barnyard as though frozen in the midst of a leap to escape its fate. Inside, the rows of stalls were filled with the detritus of decades decaying gracelessly in the damp, dark cavern, and the floorboards sagged with the weight of the clutter. Paint and rust flaked off every surface, and the ancient electrical wiring dared the adventurous spirit to give it a try. And, despite all that, the barn, along with its ell of storage rooms, ice house and workshops, possessed a simple majesty that spoke of better times; a productive past in which it was the epicenter of a family’s daily life and dreams.
With the establishment of the Curran Homestead, Inc., the old barn was slated for immediate restoration. Volunteers labored mightily to empty the huge interior, and people were hired to straighten and stabilize the structure. As befit the nature of the fine old building, the work was done, not by a modern machine-based construction company, but by two older gentlemen whose names are lost to this writer. Working with jacks and timbers, picks and shovels, they removed worn floorboards, excavated the building perimeter, raised the entire barn and ell two feet in the air and rebuilt the more than fifty points at which it made contact with the ground. Not surprisingly, the excavation uncovered old hand-worked timbers and floor joists that the barn’s builders had salvaged from some other, long forgotten building. The repairmen installed some eight hundred feet of new eight by eight hemlock sills and gently set the building back down. After that, old farm trucks and come-along’s were used to pull the structure back to vertical and hold it there while bracing was installed. The project took an entire summer, and other summers would see roof repair and window replacements, electrical upgrades, new floorboards and paint. Much of the clutter is back, but instead of rotting junk, it consists of farm tools and antiquities, safe and dry, waiting to be introduced to the next generation of Maine’s citizens as they learn about their heritage.
The Curran Homestead has twelve buildings on more than seventy acres, but the old barn still stands proudly at the center of the Curran universe. It is once again in need of maintenance, but that is just part of the normal rhythm of life on the homestead.