It Takes a Village to Raise a Barn
BY TARA TAFT / PHOTOS MICHAEL PIAZZA
“One, two, three, lift!” Brendan Matthews, owner of The Barn Raisers, says to the 17 or so men and women wearing flannel shirts, fleece tops, jeans and white or yellow hard hats and standing on scaffolding or recently set beams. Together they are lifting a horizontal beam and fitting it into the notches of this post-and-beam construction.
“Down on this end, up on that end,” Matthews directs, and eventually the beam slips into place. Though it’s December in New England, the sun is shining and the temperatures are in the 50s. People are milling about, watching, chatting, working, lifting. Fan Watkinson, program manager of Gaining Ground, a nonprofit organic farm in Concord, says more than 200 people are here today, volunteering to help raise a barn for an organization whose work depends on volunteerism.
What started as a small garden on private property in 1994 has grown into a much larger operation. With its main farm located adjacent to Thoreau’s birthplace in Concord, Gaining Ground now grows food on three of the 20 acres it leases with the help of two farmers, Kayleigh Boyle and Doug Wolcik, two apprentices and more than 2,000 volunteers. The organization gives away tens of thousands of pounds of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs—including tomatoes, eggplants, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, radishes, tomatillos, kale and winter squash—to hunger relief organizations in the Greater Boston area.
By late 2014 a series of additions and improvements to the farm created the need for a barn. The Gaining Ground board of directors agreed to build one the old-fashioned way: as a community event with the farm’s volunteers. “Half our mission is to get people out to participate to do what needs to be done,” says President Joe Rigali.
The board formed a barn-raising committee. “It was a whole group effort,” says member Jeff Young. “It’s been fun to get everyone involved.” An architect by trade, he designed the barn and served as project manager.
While the term barn raising conjures up images of community and productivity, and the historical concept of barn raising is now a metaphor for working together, the actual practice still exists in New England and the rest of the world. As hands come together to raise a barn, they employ the sustainable technique of timber framing, also called post-and-beam construction.
After getting the town’s approval in the spring of 2015 (which was necessary because Gaining Ground farms on Concord conservation land) the organization began fundraising. In just three months, they reached the $400,000 goal. That September, Gaining Ground contacted The Barn Raisers.
Based in East Haddam, Connecticut, The Barn Raisers designs and builds traditional timber frame structures such as New England barns. “If you want a really well-built building, two-by-fours and nails aren’t it,” says Matthews. “It will last a generation or two, but timber framing will last hundreds of years and more.” His company uses hand-cut oak and pine timbers from trees grown in Connecticut and Rhode Island within a two-hour drive of Boston. If customers are interested—as Gaining Ground was—the company will also coordinate traditional barn raisings.
Matthews was 13 years old when he participated in his first barn raising. He knew then that he wanted to be a timber framer. After taking timber-framing classes in his teens, and studying drafting and business in college, he started his business. In 1995, when he was 24, Matthews designed, cut and raised his first barn by himself. Since then he has built over 85 structures—ranging from horse and carriage barns to sheds and art studios to houses and garages—sustainably. About 60% of those structures were raised by hand.
According to Matthews, while barn raising always means timber framing, timber framing doesn’t necessarily mean hand raising. Many of the bigger timber framing companies use only a crew and cranes, but he prefers the community aspect of hand raising and encourages his clients to gather their friends together to raise their barn. “The more the merrier,” he says.
Scheduling a barn raising in December was risky, but Gaining Ground wanted to get it done before the growing season, and Matthews had an opening. Fortunately for all, the weather was mild. From design to approval to build, Matthews says, “It was the fastest job we’ve done.”
With such a large project and a big crew, Matthews’ biggest challenge was to be prepared. He rehearsed the night before, telling himself the story of the raising over and over, picturing each person and each tool’s location for the eight to nine hours it would take. Finally, at 5am, he was ready.
The barn’s dimensions are 42 feet by 70 feet by 30 feet high, according to Young. There are 400 wooden pegs, 129 braces and 180 rafters. “It was the largest [barn] we’ve done,” Matthews says. It had the biggest crowd, and the biggest group of volunteers. “It was fantastic, and we loved it. Community is such a big part of our company. This was such a nice fit.”
Elisabeth Elden, a Gaining Ground volunteer and a member of the barn raising committee, was struck by the community aspect of the event. “Everybody has to work together and at the same time,” she says. “There was nothing this morning and now look at this.”
“Gaining Ground is building for a future,” Matthews says. “They’re giving back to the community and they’re expecting the farm to be there not just for them but for this organization to stay around after they’re gone. This barn will be there to support the operation for generations, and that’s important to them.”
The barn will be used for more than just housing the tractor and other equipment. It will provide a warm place for the farmers to cook their lunch, offer storage space, house a walk-in cooler, workshop space and bathroom facilities. With its post and beam construction, “This barn should be here 200 years,” Young says. “It will be our center, the heart of the farm.”
The sun is setting, the barn is raised, and Matthews, Young and a few others are on top of the roof. Matthews attaches a bough of white pine to the roof’s peak, and the 60 or so remaining volunteers gather for the ancient topping out ceremony.
“The wedding bush is a symbol of longevity,” Matthews says. “It’s a blessing for the longevity of the barn.” He pauses, then says, “Congratulations! You all just built a barn in a day!”