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Canton | Hanover | Marshfield

Old barns are reborn

Dilapidated but historic farm buildings are being carefully saved

Marshfield Barn was built circa 1880.

In an acute case of one person’s trash being another’s treasure, three old barns have inspired preservationists in Canton, Hanover, and Marshfield who hope to resurrect the antique buildings.

“These barns are a record of our [country’s] craftsmanship - monumental efforts of energy and careful thought,’’ said Steven O’Shaughnessy, who is involved in trying to save the structures as head of the preservation carpentry program at the North Bennet Street School in Boston’s North End.

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“We were an agrarian society, a bunch of farmers, and we’ve become so disconnected here in New England from that tradition,’’ he said. “We should do everything possible to hang on to these few surviving buildings that tell that story.’’

Of the three barns, only one is still standing. That’s the Hatch barn in Marshfield, and it was slated for demolition to make way for improvements at the town-owned airport, George Harlow Field, before the local historical commission stepped in last spring to try to save the structure.

In response, the Airport Commission is expected to issue a formal request for proposals this month, in an attempt to find someone willing to take the barn apart, cart it away, and use it elsewhere.

The Canton and Hanover barns already are in pieces - but they are carefully marked pieces that are stored and ready to be reassembled like jigsaw puzzles on a grand scale.

O’Shaughnessy’s students took down the Canton barn, which is owned by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, about three years ago and have been restoring and repairing it at the school’s Arlington workshop. A barn-raising is planned for the spring at the original site on the Brookwood Farm in the Blue Hills.

The structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as “Old Barn,’’ and O’Shaughnessey describes it as “rare and handmade.’’

“This one we stumbled on by accident,’’ he said. “A [North Bennet Street School] student is a ranger with DCR and his home base is Brookwood Farm. He called and said, ‘We had an accident with our tractor and we knocked off some trim [from the barn] and I think I’m looking at some hand-hewn timber.’ ’’

O’Shaughnessey went to take a look and, despite the rot and insect damage, what he saw was intriguing enough to turn into a three-year-plus project. He sent pieces of the wood to a lab in Oxford, England, for a dendrochronology, or tree-ring study, and the results indicated the barn dated to 1791.

What initially appeared to be a more common three-bay barn was originally a smaller 20-foot, 1 3/4-inch square, English-style two-bay barn made of oak and chestnut. What made it particularly special was that it was “scribe-rule’’ construction - which means each piece of wood was individually cut to fit into another piece - and it was the only known example of its type and age in this area, O’Shaughnessey said.

His students photographed and made detailed drawings of the barn as they painstakingly deconstructed it, attaching numbered copper tags to each part. The numbers then went on the drawings “so it’s like a puzzle, a map that a preservation carpenter can look at and know where every specific piece goes,’’ he said.

The larger Hanover barn was constructed similarly at about the same time, but with pine and oak, O’Shaughnessey said. The pine “was one of my clues for the age of the barn. Earlier it would have been all oak. It took a while for builders to become accustomed to and trusting of New England pine,’’ he said.

The town of Hanover bought the barn - and the surrounding Albert White farm - in 2005 with Community Preservation Act money to prevent construction of a four-lot subdivision on the site, according to town planner Margaret Hoffman. At first, the town wanted to renovate the barn for affordable housing, she said, but it was decided that was too expensive.

Instead, Hoffman called O’Shaughnessey, who recommended dismantling and saving the barn until it could be used again. His students did the deconstruction, and the wooden pieces now are stored in a trailer at the town Department of Public Works. In her office, Hoffman has boxes of wooden pins that held the barn together.

The pins may be back in use soon.

The Friends of the Stetson House, which financially supports the historic house museum in the center of Hanover, think the Albert White Barn would be a perfect addition to their site. They plan to ask Town Meeting this spring for $100,000 in Community Preservation Act money - which they would match - so the barn can be rebuilt next to the museum and used for exhibits.

A carpenter and a farmer have expressed interest in taking down the Hatch barn in Marshfield and putting it up somewhere else, according to David Dinneen, manager of Harlow field, also known as Marshfield Municipal Airport, which owns the structure.

The Airport Commission applied for permission last spring to tear down the barn, which is in the way of safety-mandated growth of the airport’s runway area. Dinneen said airport officials were relieved, though, when the Marshfield Historical Commission delayed the demolition last April and offered to help find a new home for the barn.

“We really want to preserve it,’’ he said. “It has some beautiful details and actually has some historic value.’’

Samuel Hatch built the center section of the three-story barn in the 1880s to store salt-marsh hay, according to Regina Porter of the historical commission. The building later was added to and converted to a stable where racehorses were boarded and trained; a sandy track still surrounds the imposing structure, which sits on 60 acres at the edge of the airport. (The area also is a nesting area for the protected Eastern box turtle.)

Porter’s efforts to save the barn started with a call to O’Shaughnessey, who called the barn “a beauty’’ but too big a project for his students. She called Michael Burrey, whom she’d worked with at Plimoth Plantation, and he confirmed the barn’s historic value but estimated it would cost a “daunting’’ amount to move, she said.

“In the meantime, a member of the Marshfield Historical Society was talking it up at the church social and one member said, ‘My brother-in-law just put up a barn in Hingham.’ So we called Peter Bickford,’’ she said.

Bickford, who has done restoration carpentry since 1972, said he’d like to rebuild the barn either at his 27-acre Hingham property - for hay and farm equipment storage - or as a hay barn at John Hornstra’s dairy farm in Norwell.

Dineen said another person, who farms in Marshfield and asked not to be named, just came forward last week and expressed interest in the barn. He said the airport commission would make a decision later this year.

“I take my hat off to Regina Porter and her committee, because this barn was at the threshold of being destroyed,’’ Bickford said. “It’s through her perseverance that we’re at the point we are today.

“It’s much easier to get rid of these structures, knock them down, and cart them away. In a few days the barn would be on the ground and in the dumpster,’’ he added. “It will take [someone] six to eight weeks to dismantle this thing, but it will be well worth the time.’’

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.
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