NORTHAMPTON — “Points up! Like you’re ready to storm the castle!” Alicia Spence directed. “Where’s my pike pole person?”
“Aye, aye!” yelled a woman with silver hair, wielding a spiked stick.
The “castle” was a historic barn that was about to get a new timber-frame addition last weekend, built by Spence and her volunteer crew. They had just lifted a 1.5-ton wall into place, as high as their arms could reach.
The storming? That was the job of the people assigned pike poles — to embed them into the timber frame and push it the rest of the way up.
“Jam it in,” Spence yelled, “with an attitude!”
With her white bun, Spence, 58, has become a familiar presence at Historic Northampton, a local history museum, since it started a major restoration project a couple of years ago on Shepherd Barn, which dates to 1805. Over the past few months, the timber framer has taught community members, some with zero carpentry experience, how to do everything from the unlikely to the seemingly impossible.
How exactly do you move a 38-foot-by-28-foot barn? Put it on “industrial roller skates,” gather a couple hundred neighbors, give them some rope and drum rolls, and yell “HEAVE!” as they pull the structure 60 feet along I-beams onto a new concrete foundation. Spence did that in January.
It’s all part of a much bigger framework, if you will, to transform the historic barn into an exhibit space and performance venue on the campus of Historic Northampton, which also includes three historic homes and is located about a block away from downtown.
The museum could have hired a professional construction crew to get the job done, but involving the public is the point. Timber framing is a centuries-old construction method known for its heavy timbers and handmade joinery: Tenons fit into mortises, which are then fastened with wooden pegs (no metal).
A timber-frame structure carries its own weight and supports itself.
Think of it as a metaphor for community. “I love thinking about how when people come to performances, they will say to their neighbor, ‘I helped move the barn,’ or ‘I have a peg that I wrote on, and it’s over there in that corner,’ or ‘I helped raise a timber frame,’” said Laurie Sanders, co-director of Historic Northampton, noting that major funding came from the Community Preservation Act, Massachusetts Cultural Council, and private foundations and donors. “It’s a completely different relationship with that building, this organization, and the place of Northampton.”
Spence first started doing emergency repairs on the barn to keep it upright several years ago, she said. She just finished restoring the main part of the structure, along with fellow timber framer Miles Herter. Over weekends from January through March, they led hands-on timber-framing workshops for volunteers who prepped two new additions. One of those volunteers was Sarah Seitz, a social worker by training, whom Spence taught how to use a circular saw for the first time. “Alicia was just like, ‘Hey, do you want to learn how to do this?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and then she showed me and trusted me,” Seitz said.
Spence will often just say she’s a carpenter and leave it at that. But her particular craft has a very particular appeal. “I really still to this day love a fit-up — seeing the mortise and tenon joint come together,” she said.
Born in New Jersey, Spence moved around a lot growing up. She didn’t come from a handy family, she said, “but I’ve always gravitated that way.” A few months before she turned 18, she bought a motorcycle with a roll of $1 bills — babysitting money — to head out west. She left on her birthday. “I thought I was going into the Air Force Academy, and instead I ended up hanging out with some hippies out on the Oregon coast,” she said. “I didn’t have an end game. . . . I don’t know that I thought past the ride.”
She later majored in environmental studies at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, where she learned how to cut down trees in a sawmill and worked on a forestry crew. After graduating, she moved back west to start working with the Student Conservation Association and US Forest Service to build backcountry bridges for hikers and horses. Among other places, she worked in Alaska and at Yellowstone National Park. She was drawn to “the heavy construction of trail work,” she said. “I perversely like moving heavy things.”
Spence also liked the mandate to keep modern machinery, like a chainsaw, out of the natural world — in Yellowstone and other spots out west, she used hand tools to build bridges out of rock and timber.
She continued on that path until she realized that “maybe civilization has some perks too, more than laundry and ice cream,” she said. “And I was like, well, I have this kind of odd skill set of moving awkward, heavy things and making them stand up for a long time in the weather. And that’s how I landed in timber framing, out in Washington state.”
In the late 1990s, after falling in love and getting married, Spence settled in Northampton, a city that boasts the slogan, “Where the coffee is strong and so are the women.” But as a woman in construction, she’s also experienced sexism. Though she was mostly oblivious to it when she was younger, she said, getting older and seeing the world through the eyes of her two sons, now grown, has made her more aware.
“My most irritating thing is just being instantly dismissed,” said Spence, who’s also worked as a general contractor. She recalled a visit to a lumberyard some years ago with her older son, then around 13 — the guy behind the counter only addressed the boy. “Here I am with decades of experience,” she said, while her son was treated like “the keeper of all knowledge.”
Those decades of experience have informed projects she’s led far away from home. In Louisiana, Spence guided a youth corps in the restoration of a house built by enslaved Africans in the early 1800s. In Poland, she led the reconstruction of a medieval synagogue at Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Spence harbors a dream to help rebuild Notre Dame after the devastating 2019 fire that consumed it — a fire that started in the cathedral’s attic known as “the forest” for its latticework of ancient timbers.
But it’s small-scale projects like the one at Historic Northampton that bring communities together and, as she put it, “make the most people say, ‘What else is possible?’”
And she knows she’s leading by example, particularly for some of her women volunteers. “Could be a backhanded compliment, but I think there’s a fair bit of ‘Well, if that old girl could do it, I could certainly do it,’” she said, and laughed.
For the record, Spence said, “People say that the male strength is better, but women have endurance.”