The English Barn

The arrival of the first true Springlike day in Connecticut feels much like Dorothy opening the door of Auntie Em’s house after its violent journey from Kansas to be greeted with vibrant colors and a fresh view of life in the Land of Oz. Friday was one of those remarkable days. 73 degrees, bright blue skies, and no traces of the last snows that fell over Easton less than a week ago.

It was just last week as a few of us sat outside at Greiser’s – just as in Casablanca where Everybody Comes to Rick’s, when in Easton, everybody comes to Greiser’s – I was enjoying my dirty chai while we discussed the pleasures of early spring. We all agreed that hiking through the woods of Easton and Redding, before the vegetation will once again hide the treasures of the ancient stone walls and the remains of the old rubblestone foundations that once served as a base for our ancestor’s homes, is always a rewarding experience.

Unlike so many other suburban Fairfield County towns, much of Easton and Redding landscape remains unscrubbed by the large machines that knocked down the forests, plowed under the once furrowed fields, and destroyed the glorious stone walls that had taken our forefathers so much effort to build. While many of the structures are long gone, the evidence of them having once been here is largely still visible once the snows have melted and before the skunk cabbage and briar bushes reclaim their spot in the sun.

The outlines of the old foundations remind us of just how small most of those early houses had been. With no central heat other than fireplaces, and no indoor plumbing, most of the earliest homes consisted of keeping room (much the same as today’s family room), a kitchen where the food was cooked over a fire while breads were baking in Dutch-ovens built into the masonry, and perhaps a small bedroom where the youngest child often slept with its parents. The upper level of those early homes was often nothing more than a large open space that the older children shared as their sleeping quarters.

The foundations of the barns are less and less apt to reveal the treasures we so often discovered as kids while exploring the woods in the 1950’s. It seemed like every other tree in the forest had an orange and black, metal Bridgeport Hydraulic “No Trespassing” sign firmly nailed to its trunk. Other than make the sign company money, I’m not sure what other purpose they served, since we all ran freely through their lands.

But within the first fifty years of their demise, those old barn sites often revealed parts and pieces of tools and farm implements. Some sites even produced hinges and latches as well as an occasional spoke or two from a long-ago discarded wagon wheel. All of us found multiple rusty horseshoes. I still have one that made its way to the surface in one of our rock gardens behind the house.

Perhaps the most desirable finds were iron well-pumps, although very few remained intact.

But perhaps a much greater treasure for all the inhabitants of both Easton and Redding is the large number of old barns that still adorn our landscape long after their utilitarian life as place to house livestock and store hay had expired. Today, some stand as ornamental reminders of our past, while others hide several collectable automobiles. Some contain old sleighs, wagons and farm implements whose uses only agricultural historians can explain. Still others house modern ATV’s or serve as winter storage for the family’s boat or personal watercraft. What they are used for today is unimportant, what matters is that they are still standing and silently honoring our heritage. And unlike other, less affluent parts of our country, most of our local barns are still seeing maintenance, with structural repairs being done long before the buildings collapse under their own weight.

As a one of Redding’s Town Historians, I was recently invited to take a look at this amazingly intact sleigh that has been sitting in this barn since 1906! The barn also held a pair of carriages and a beautiful horse drawn mowing machine.

With able descriptions written and published by Preservation Connecticut on their Historic Barns of Connecticut website: https://connecticutbarns.org/, we’ll present a few of the English Style barns that still stand proudly in Redding today. In a later article we will show some bigger barns in Easton that were better suited for larger operations.

From the Preservation Connecticut website: The oldest barns still found in the state are called the “English Barn,” “side-entry barn,” “eave entry,” or a 30 x 40. They are simple buildings with rectangular plan, pitched gable roof, and a door or doors located on one or both of the eave sides of the building based on the grain warehouses of the English colonists’ homeland. The name “30 by 40” originates from its size (in feet), which was large enough for 1 family and could service about 100 acres. The multi-purpose use of the English barn is reflected by the building’s construction in three distinct bays – one for each use. The middle bay was used for threshing, which is separating the seed from the stalk in wheat and oat by beating the stalks with a flail. The flanking bays would be for animals and hay storage.

The Ryder Barn on Umpawaug Road is protected by an historic easement.

The Ryder barn on Umpawaug in Redding was built around the turn of the last century. It has the unique distinction of having an historic easement assigned to it that is controlled by the Redding Historical Society. While this structure remains in private hands, the owners are obligated to maintain the structure and must consult with the Historical Society before any alterations can be made. It is currently undergoing a much needed structural and cosmetic restoration, but it should retain its original look and character once the work has been completed.

This barn is a very good example of the typical English barn described above. The photo below shows farmer Bill Ryder loading the barn with grain stalks after they have been through the thresher that is sitting outside. One of the unique features of this particular barn is that Ryder used the walls and doors inside as a massive writing surface where he recorded daily happenings and the weather. Every major weather event between the early 1900’s and the 1950’s is recorded somewhere on the inside of that barn! If you want to know how warm it was on July 4, 1933, it’s likely recorded on the inside of Bill Ryder’s barn door or the frame that surrounds it. While none of this information is in any particular order, it is all there for the reading and the historical easement on that barn means that it will remain there for a good while longer!

The Ryder barn when it was still in use c.1917

From the Preservation Connecticut website: The 19th century saw the introduction of a basement under the barn to allow for the easy collection and storage of a winter’s worth of manure from the animals sheltered within the building. The bank barn is characterized by the location of its main floor above grade, either through building into a hillside or by raising the building on a foundation.  This innovation, aided by the introduction of windows for light and ventilation, would eventually be joined by the introduction of space to shelter more animals under the main floor of the barn.

This 1870’s hardware on the old Sanford barn on Stepney Road is still in use!

Shortly after the Civil War, the United States was entering its own industrial revolution. It was then that Francis E. Myers left his father’s farm in Ashland Ohio to begin selling tools and hardware to the local farm trade. In the basement of a rented building on Ashland’s Main Street, Francis and his brother Philip started what was then called “The F. E. Myers & Bro. Company.” During that same time period, the sons of James Sanford were running several successful button factories in the Poverty Hollow section of Redding, while James Sanford’s iron plow factory on Stepney Road was near its zenith. It is likely that some of Sanford’s westbound patented plows headed for the fertile lands in Ohio crossed paths with the eastbound hardware produced by Myers that would end up on the doors of Stephen Sanford’s barn in Redding. Those rollers are still in use today.

The Sanford barn on Stepney Road is a good example of the smaller barns that were once common in Redding. It also has a more authentic look than many area barns that have often been re-sided and painted to better enhance their appearance in the modern era. Late 17th and 18th century barns were seldom painted in their day. Many were covered with hand-split wooden shingles, but some like this were sided with lumber that hung vertically with upper boards overlapping lower ones so that rainwater would flow to the ground rather than penetrate the horizontal gaps in the siding and settle into the ends of the boards, causing them to eventually rot.

This barn on Stepney Road dates back to approximately 1870 and retains its paint-free natural exterior

The Stephen Sanford structure is a 2.5-story, 2-bay, English style bank barn.  It has an earthen ramp up to the main sliding doors, and the lower section of the barn is accessed through a pair of double hinged doors, each with 12-light windows. These doors were likely added in the 20th century when the barn saw use as a garage for the then owner’s automobiles. 6-light windows are located in the walls of the upper section of the barn.

While this structure may at first appear to be neglected, closer examination reveals that it has seen regular upkeep and periodic replacement of weathered materials. Modern fasteners (mass produced nails and screws) are evident throughout. The interior shows extensive efforts have been made to stabilize the original framing by sistering modern lumber with the old. This barn is a good example of preservation that has been accomplished using the same common-sense approach that our frugal New England ancestors would have used – repair and replace as needed. It’s a barn, not the Sistine Chapel. While this barn isn’t the prettiest structure in the neighborhood, it is likely the most authentic in appearance to the time it was built.

Interior of the Sanford Barn shows extensive repairs and strengthening efforts to stabilize the structure in an effort to keep it as original as possible.

Not every old English style barn still standing is still used as a barn. This one on Newtown Turnpike has recently been reclaimed from part of the much larger house it had been transformed into. But instead of restoring it as the original barn it had been built as, it was carefully rebuilt to the specifications of the era when it was called the Music Barn by the farm’s owner during the 1930’s and 1940’s. That owner was none other than Jascha Heifetz, the world-renowned violinist. Heifetz had transformed the small barn on his Redding estate into a place where he and his friends could play beautiful music. As luck would have it, the current owners of the property knew about that structure when they purchased the estate and decided to painstakingly bring it back to its former glory.

Jascha Heifetz’s restored “Music Barn” on Newtown Turnpike

Everyone at the Historical Society of Easton would like to thank all those who generously donated to our Spring Initiative last week. Through your efforts, we are almost half-way to our goal! For those of you who appreciate what we do and haven’t yet donated, there is still plenty of time to give! Visit us at Donations and Patrons – Historical Society of Easton Connecticut (historicalsocietyofeastonct.org) to donate using your credit card or PayPal account. Or you can mail us a check: Historical Society of Easton, PO Box 121, Easton, CT 06612. Thank you for your support!

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