This Old Barn

Part of what makes a midlife crisis so humiliating is how obvious it is to everyone except the afflicted. The guy in the sports car that’s way too red. The guy with the new wife who’s way too young (note: I speak only for guys, that being what I am). No need for the wry caption, it’s plain to everyone what’s wrong with the picture. So, if you must have a midlife crisis at least be discrete about it. Try to avoid looking like a walking (or driving) New Yorker cartoon, choose something your friends and family can get behind. You know, something harmless like training for a marathon or learning to speak Portuguese. I completely ignored this advice of course and opted for a midlife crisis that was about as discrete as a fire engine in your rearview mirror and about as subtle as the broad side of a barn. 

In fact, it was a barn.

That’s right, my midlife crisis was moving a 200-year-old Dutch barn from the Mohawk Valley (about 80 miles northwest) to my backyard in Ancramdale. And there it stands, a four-story monument to indiscretion. Before I get into the how’s let me take a crack at the why’s.

I love barns, I guess that’s pretty obvious. I love them in all their many shapes and sizes. Big, small, round, square, long, short. There’s something both ancient and extremely modern about a barn. It has none of the fussiness or the decorative need to impress that houses have. A barn has neither the time nor the inclination to impress you. After all, it has a job to do. Barns were stark and utilitarian long before the rest of architecture decided it was hip. To really appreciate an old barn though you have to look under its skin. Here the beams come together in a spectacular dance of form and function. If you know what to look for the particulars of that dance can tell you quite a lot. It can tell you the approximate age of the barn and the ethnicity of the people who built it. (If you’re really good it can tell you whether the person who hewed the beams was tall or short, left-handed or right.) It can tell you about the local economy way back when it was built, how that economy changed over the years, and how the barn’s owners adapted to those changes. It rarely hands you this information on a platter—I’ve only ever seen one barn whose builder left a definitive date on it. But, if you know how to listen, a barn is happy to tell you its story.

The first barn that ever spoke to me did so back when I was renting an old house in the town of Accord, just west of the Hudson. Behind it was a lovely old wreck that I later learned was a Dutch barn. We don’t have enough time to go into all the things that distinguish a Dutch barn from other barns, suffice it to say its design is ancient, medieval in fact, and that its numbers and geographical spread are quite limited. That rarity, along with its unique beam structure—a structure it shares with the great cathedrals of Europe—make the Dutch barn the crème de la crème of the barn world. And so, with my very first barn, I became both a barn geek and a barn snob.

But it wasn’t until I moved to Ancramdale that I discovered how badly I’d been bitten by the barn bug. Our new home, a 200-year old farmhouse with spectacular land and views, had everything we could ever want. Everything but a barn, that is (the original had disappeared long ago). That hole in my life began to manifest itself in subtle ways at first. A few wistful remarks like, “Wouldn’t it be great if this place had a barn?” Sure it would, my wife responded, only half listening. Who could argue with that? It was when my wishes began to coalesce into a plan that she began to worry. Was this guy seriously considering moving a barn to the property? Yes, he was. Cut to Paul and Mary in the marriage counselor’s office. I won’t go into all the gory details. Let’s just say 2000 was a very good year for our marriage counselor. After months of negotiations, my wife and I were able to hammer out an agreement—basically, I would get my barn in exchange for giving up all rights to anything else for the rest of my life.

Meanwhile, when I wasn’t negotiating with my wife I was looking for a barn. I spent almost every weekend of that year combing the Mohawk Valley for Dutch barns (I figured if I was going to do something as ridiculous as move a barn it might as well be a Dutch barn). There are still quite a few of them up there and, with the help of my carpenter friend Michael Barberi, I got a good look at just about all of them. Shopping for a used barn is kind of like shopping for a used car, you’ve got to kick the tires and look under the hood if you want to avoid getting a lemon.

We saw a lot of lemons. But there was one stunner. It was so stunning in fact that I had to quickly rule it out because its owner, a Hungarian woman named Eva, wanted way more for it than I could afford. So, while Eva continued to entertain offers from high-rollers looking for a barn to convert into a fancy weekend home, Mike and I looked for something that was more in my price range. Finally, almost a year later, we found one, a modest Dutch just five or six miles up the road from Eva’s. As a courtesy I let Eva know that I was about to make an offer on this other barn. But, seeing as her barn was clearly out of my league, I got a reaction. What did I see in this “other barn,” she wanted to know, sounding very much like a mother whose daughter has just been jilted. Affordability, I told her. Then she asked me—again playing the would-be mother-in-law—if I thought I could be “truly happy” with this other barn. I considered the question for a moment. “Eva, the barn up the road is like The Girl Next Door,” I said. "Your barn is ,like Madonna. All things being equal, would I choose Madonna over The Girl Next Door? In a heartbeat. But could I learn to be happy with The Girl Next Door?  Absolutely.”

Eva got very quiet. Finally she asked me to hold off on making my offer for three days, during which time she would show her barn to one last couple and then make a decision. I reluctantly agreed. Reluctantly because I had already made peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to get Eva’s barn. The last thing I wanted was to get my hopes up, only to have them dashed again. I knew for a fact the competition was offering almost twice what I was, which meant all I had going for me was “true love.” (Who but a love-crazed barn geek would go to all the trouble and expense of moving and restoring a barn just to use it as a barn?) But Eva was a hard-nosed businesswoman whose only interest, as far as I could see, was cold hard cash.

I was wrong about that. It turned out true love trumped cold hard cash. On Monday Eva sent me an email. It said simply, “Madonna is yours.” (Okay, so she’s also a bit of a drama queen.) It was months later (Thank God) that we realized we’d been talking about two different Madonnas. When Eva found out I’d been referring to the rock star, not the Mother of Christ, she said, in that thick, judgmental Hungarian accent of hers, “Ach! She is a no good slut!”
Three years later Madonna rises majestically over the fields of Ancramdale. Mike, using an Amish crew, had lovingly disassembled her—painstakingly numbering each part—before putting her on a tractor trailer. A year of meticulous restoration followed in which, among other things, the roof was returned to its original height and pitch. It’s safe to say the barn probably hasn’t stood so tall or looked so proud for at least a hundred years. Every day I see it (and I see it every day) I’m reminded of a quote by local writer Rod Blackburn: “Dutch barns have the spiritual quality of a cathedral in the wilderness.”

The barn has already become a popular site for weddings and fundraisers. It could be my imagination but I swear air traffic in our area has risen significantly since we put it up. And someday I hope its walls will once again echo with the sound of farm animals—some horses, an ox perhaps, maybe even a couple donkeys and a goat or two. Some might see that as a step down for a “cathedral in the wilderness.” But to me the beauty of a barn, even the most magnificent, will always be that it’s a barn.

Paul Spencer
The Wannabe Farmer


You can contact Paul at spencer212@gmail.com

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Too Much of a Good Thing
Mr. Fraidy
My Three-Leaved Nemisis
Psycho Rooster
A Pile of Feathers
Plan Bee
Agway Chic
Purple Prose
My Atkins Advisors
This Old Barn
My Old Truck

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