At the annual meeting that October we decided to announce the plan to move ahead with the Munger Barn project with a very optimistic goal of raising the frame that next July. Once again elected president, it was my pleasure to speak on behalf of the board of directors that despite the setback caused by the end of the education program the Foundation was still looking forward to the future and that future was embodied in the Munger Barn and it’s raising. We would hold an old fashioned barn raising during which the timber frame would be assembled and raised by hand, timber by timber just as it had been done for over 300 years. The raising would be a community event with farm members, volunteers, and the community invited to participate and celebrate in a rare historic opportunity….
…A break in the impasse that had led to our paralysis thankfully came. Mark Dudley, who along with board member Janet and their son Evan were the livestock committee for the farm and cared for the assortment of animals, some theirs, some the farm’s, approached me about several conversations with barn builder and restorer George Senerchia he had recently. In the late 1990’s, George, his wife Susan, and partner Gene Jones, who were Northford Timber Framers, had restored one of the other barns taken from the Munger property into an artist’s studio and addition to a house in the neighboring town of Madison. George had occasionally run into Mark while working on that project and eventually Mark broached the idea of getting involved with the Dudley Farm’s raising. George expressed a willingness to consider the project and I enthusiastically asked Mark to approach the board with the possibility. Along with a few others on the Board of Directors, I jumped at the opportunity to enlist his help and soon after a number of us visited George at his home workshop in the next door village of Northford, eager to see his work and find out what he had to say. I for one felt this might be our best and possibly only chance at making the dream of the barn a reality for the farm and was immediately convinced that George was our man as we drove up his drive and into a collection of meticulously restored antique 18th and 19th century barns. Henry, Tom, Doug, Mark and I talked for a long time with George about the art of timber framing, his passion for the old way of building, and his love of barns as we toured those he had restored on his property. We were all convinced. But was he? As George eagerly said, he had always been a sucker for an old timber frame and he knew this would be love at first sight though I worried once he got a look at the frame stored in that old container truck, not even a shotgun wedding could make it all happen. But for now all that was left was to convince the rest of the board, let George have a look at the frame, get him and Doug to sit down with the plans, and of course, figure out how to pay for it all.
Despite the hesitation of some board members to invite an outsider to take on the task of restoring, preserving, and retrofitting the Munger Barn frame, a general consensus was reached that George was our man once he attended a board meeting and spoke of his plan for the frame and a raising that would follow. His enthusiasm was contagious and his eagerness to begin working on the frame was infectious. This man loved a timber frame and as he spoke it was clear that his passion went way beyond the pieces that composed the structure. George seemed to channel the very essence of those long ago craftsmen who had first made the frame and that emotional and psychological connection lent to him an aura of confidence and purpose that could only be likened to one whose mission in life was a crusade to save every barn that was left….
…Looking back it is clear that the experience of the barn raising was the culmination of ten remarkable years of trying to create not just the Dudley Farm as a museum, but to rekindle a sense of community whose loss had been integral to the saving of the farm to begin with. Little did we know, as von Weizsaecker said, how our increasing cultural exile from the past had led us all, through the experience of saving the farm, to a redemption of sorts. What had started as an effort to save a symbol of a quickly vanishing world had become a crusade to preserve, recreate, and perpetuate what once was so common for not only us, but future generations; a remembrance of what once was. In that struggle, we each found our own personal reconciliation with the past, not as an abstract myth or idea, but as a tangible reality. As we worked to reawaken that same sense in the community that had formed around the farm, we hoped to share with them an understanding of what that past truly was. The symbol and vehicle of that redemption was the Munger Barn
Raising the frame would be a dramatic and romantic moment, but prior to that, a tremendous amount of labor had to go into preparing the mountain of timbers once they arrived on the site prior to assembling them into sections called bents. It was here that George was at his best. Three days before the raising, the timbers, both old and new, were brought to the area just outside the fully decked foundation for their final organizing and processing. A good number of the newer timbers had to have their mortises and tenons cut, brought together with their fellow pieces to form a section, and then moved to the floor of the barn. Like a general directing his troops into battle, George organized those of us there to shape, cut, and create the joints, move each timber into position, and ready each part for the raising Saturday morning. For three days we hauled, cut, shaved, and coated each timber with an organic preservative in preparation for the big day. Through it all, George unflaggingly seemed to be everywhere; on the deck, directing the placement of a mortise, explaining why a particular timber was shaped as it was, or simply shouting encouragement. Here was a man whose heart was functioning at less than 20% seemingly everywhere in the hot, humid sun of August, cheering us on and cajoling us in his good natured way; a human dynamo of activity. It was truly remarkable. He seemed to literally be channeling the very spirits of those long ago craftsmen for whom what we were doing was so routine, and as the sun grew stronger each day, so it seemed, did George.
The process of raising a timber frame by hand, especially one as large as that of the Munger Barn, was a logistical feat that required organization, muscle power, and teamwork; a rarity in our modern, machine driven era. For the Dudley’s, a raising would have taken place in much the same way we were planning it and I for one, felt confident that we were going to experience something magically historic. Yet as we each arrived at the farm early that summer morning, you could feel the excitement wrapped in apprehension as thick as the moist, humid air. Whereas the Dudley’s, even as late as 1900, would have been familiar with the process, the work, and communal environment in which a raising would take place, for most of us it was a new and a bit intimidating experience. The number of timbers that made up the frame, their placement, the amount of labor required, and the magnitude of the job seemed dauntingly impossible to accomplish in a weekend. Were we, the now 21st century heirs to the Dudley’s and their neighbors up to the task?
For one thing, the number of people needed to raise the frame was significant, on average an estimated one person was required for every 50 pounds of weight to be lifted. We knew in advance that a good number of Foundation members and volunteers from the community were planning to participate, but how many could actually help raise the frame and for how long might they be able to help was the question. Then there was the actual celebration that would take place during the raising both days; were we ready for the number of spectators that might stop by, could we accommodate them all and keep everyone safe while keeping the atmosphere casual, comfortable, and historic? We quickly found out as the lower field used for parking filled to overflowing. This we all agreed was going to be something.
Perhaps it might be best to briefly explain exactly how a timber frame is raised. The typical timber frame, like the Munger Barn, has four sections called bents. Each bent consists of four posts, two corner posts on each end and two others each one third of the way across. Each bent, three stories high, when raised would span across the lesser width of the 50ft x 30ft foot barn, the width of the gable end. Besides the posts, each bent also included three crossing girts that spanned the distance from corner post to corner post, one half way up the posts, a second another story up, and a third across the top. The girts were locked into the posts with a mortise, tenon, and trunnel and with diagonal braces called knee braces to keep them joined at a 90 degree angle. Prior to the raising, each bent had to be put together on the deck and piled one on another in the reverse order in which they would be raised with the last bent on the bottom and the first one on the top. They were positioned where the last bent was to be located so as each in sequence could be lifted into place. Just off the deck, all the connecting frame pieces were stacked also in sequence of use with the later ones on the bottom and the earlier ones towards the top. These included the girts that would connect the bents, corner braces, second floor joists, and rafters.
Once the raising was to begin, those assembled to raise the frame would stand inside the stacked bents in preparation for lifting the first into position. On command, everyone would lift together until the top girt of the bent was about breast high. Others would then join in and shoulder the posts to aid in the lifting. The trick here was to lift with the legs and not the back as George would incessantly remind us. At that moment the pike men would join in as well. They held long 30 foot poles with sharpened ends called pikes which they pushed against the top girt and upper portions of the posts. Their job was to steady the frame as it rose and as the frame became upright, were joined by pike men on the other side who helped hold the frame and keep it from tumbling forward. At this point, the most delicate maneuver in raising a bent happened. While being held upright, it needed to be walked and persuaded to drop into mortises cut into the sills through the deck of the barn. Each post had a tenon fashioned at its end and the trick was to slide them into place without damaging them or losing the bent by allowing it to slip and fall forward or back, possibly injuring those holding it. To help prevent the posts from sliding, large stop blocks were secured to the deck next to the mortises and in theory the post would simply fall into place.
As each bent slipped into position it was temporarily secured with two braces that ran at an angle from each corner post to the sill. Then as each subsequent bent was raised, the six connecting girts were positioned between them to solidly join the two bents together, one midway up each post and the other across the top. These girts along with knee braces between each girt and post were then secured with trunnels, locking the entire frame. So there it was; it all seemed so easy as we all gathered around the timbers that Saturday awaiting orders from George and anticipating the moment. With a lot of heavy lifting and teamwork, we hoped to see it all come together as a gratifying example of life from a past that until now had only existed in our imaginations. Then we’d celebrate together our triumphant resurrection of the barn and the new life it would have on the farm.
As we chatted anxiously and those of us on the board dealt with those last minute details that accompany any event, the cars and trucks kept coming. By 8:00 am there was no room left to park and cars were being moved up to the upper meadow to accommodate the growing crowd of volunteers and spectators. Our call to help, witness, and celebrate the raising had touched people from the community and beyond. While volunteers streamed towards the deck and a growing crowd gathered around it, George and Janet did their best to bring order to the moment as we all began to feel ourselves entering a portal of sorts into another time.
What happened next was an unforgettable experience for all who came to help or watch; a chance to not just connect with the past, but to experience it and in so doing create for each of us our own sense of purpose and reconciliation with it. At that moment, on a small farm in a rapidly changing community, the ghosts of those who once were stood shoulder to shoulder with us. We knew because we could feel their presence as we lifted the frame, sat on the hill watching, or served a bottle of water to a thirsty volunteer or visitor. It wasn’t just our day, it was theirs as well. The comfort of their presence motivated us all as we felt the warm thanks of their remembrance. Or was it the warming sunlight playing on our imaginations?
by James T. Powers will be released worldwide March 2, 2013!
About the Book: Saving the Farm; A Journey through Time, Place, and Redemption is the story of how the Dudley Farm of North Guilford, Connecticut became a museum to preserve and represent a vanishing past. By itself, that story may not be of any great importance, but at a time when local farms are all but gone, the struggle to save the farm for future generations took on a crusade like quality for the small group that took on the task and the hundreds who supported their effort. Faced with unrelenting residential and commercial development, a lament repeated in neighborhoods across New England was heard in the small community of North Guilford—is this what we want? Can we preserve the history and heritage that made us who we are or will it be lost forever in the name of progress?
Pre-order Saving the Farm in our bookstore or on Barnes&Noble.com.