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This Old Barn
If you ever watched the PBS program “This Old House,” you are familiar with taking an old, worn out structure, salvaging what parts are useable, then renovating the structure. But what happens to old barns that have been neglected, are unused, and have fallen into disrepair? Many probably do just collapse. But there are folks who disassemble old barns and re-purpose the wood, giving them new life.
Michael Watson, founder of Eagle Reclaimed Lumber in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, has been giving new life to old barns since 2008. He has a love and respect for the workmanship and materials that went into barn building and brings that wood and craftsmanship back to life. He buys old barns, saves them from the bulldozer, and re-purposes the wood into “hardwood flooring, furniture, wallboard, decking, wainscoting, and anything else imaginable. This lumber creates one of a kind artwork and brings intriguing history and uniqueness to wherever it is used. It shows character from saw marks, wormholes and other age marks.”
Watson likes to talk about the “characters” he has met all across Tennessee, characters which include old barns and the people that go with them. “We’ve taken down lots of barns across the state,” he said, “And we’ve run across some interesting characters.”
One of those “interesting characters” was a barn in Winchester, Tennessee built in the late 1800s. “It was a very unique horse and mule barn. It had stalls inside for the horses with hand carved spindles and boxes to put the hay in. There was some really unique craftsman work in this barn that took a long time to do; it took effort and forethought, as opposed to throwing up a barn in two weeks as can be done today. This barn must have taken months to build. The feed room was all tongue and groove heart pine. That kept the animals out and they could store their corn in there. It had very little signs of wear. You could tell the age of the barn by the heart pine, which is first growth pine. The growth rings are very tight, very dense. This was a very unique barn with oak, pine, poplar, and beech woods in it.
“The construction was timber frame, with large beams going up through the loft and to the roof line. There were no nails used; it was all pegs with mortise and tenon joints. That kind of construction lasts a long time, even through wear; it’s very strong. As long as the barn is maintained, it will last forever. This one had fallen into disrepair from the storms we’ve had, which had taken the tin off the roof.
“We came in because the landowner didn’t want it bulldozed; the landowner wanted it re-purposed. We disassembled it and when we did, we found something I’ve never seen before in a barn. It had two door systems on the front: a summer door and a winter door. This is a great piece of common sense! The summer door was on a track that went all the way across the barn. It was solid wood about a quarter ways up, then had slats the rest of the way up to let the air flow, with screens to keep the flies out. The winter door was set behind it on another set of tracks. It could be pulled shut to keep the cold and elements out. I had not seen this before in a barn, but it makes so much sense! And it’s so simple!”
Much of the wood from these old barns goes into flooring, wall board, and wall treatments. “The look of old growth wood has more color and the age gives it character,” Watson continued. “I get a greater appreciation for the old wood when a craftsman makes a table out of it. When you lightly scratch the surface, you get new life. With just a little care, it turns green again. This is truly green recycling! And we can make beautiful products out of it.
“The neat part about these old barns is that you can see the variety of woods used in them. They used to bring sawmills to the site, and cut the trees around the barn location with which they built the barn. The wood was green when they put it up, which the reason you get some warping, but also a variety of woods was used in the barn. If the barn is near a creek, you see a lot of walnut and cherry. In upland areas, you see more oak and beech in the barn. It’s like a puzzle. When you look at the barn and the trees around it that have been growing for 50 years, you can begin to see what trees were growing around the barn site when it was built.”
These old barns also tell Watson a lot about the history of agriculture. “One of the reasons these barns got into disrepair is that farm equipment got bigger. The barn became obsolete, and therefore got less maintenance. You can see the evolution of farming, which mechanically outgrew old barns. The technology took out their functions. Back in the day, all hay had to be tossed in the barn by hand, pulled on wagons by mules. Today we have mechanically produced round bales. So you can see history and evolution in these old barns. But the good thing is that now we can bring them back for different purposes.”
Watson also enjoys meeting the people that go with the barns. “They tell us stories about the barns and things they used to do when they were kids. They have memories of going to the barn with their grandparents. Back then, the barn was to farmers like today’s office is to us: it was a place of meeting, a gathering place; they grew crops and worked there. These aspects stick in people’s memories and they have a lot of emotional attachment to their heritage.”
Before Watson and his crew tear down a barn, they take photos of it. “Then we make picture frames out of the barn materials to frame the photos” to give to the owners. This helps the family preserve their memories of the barn and the events and people associated with it.
Watson is originally from Murfreesboro, and enjoys traveling all across the state looking for old barns. “I enjoy the three grand divisions of the state and the different species of trees and topography associated with each.”
So next time you see an old barn that appears to be falling down and in dilapidated condition, think of the possibilities of re-purposed items it could become! For more information and photos of these old barns and the products they become, visit: www.eaglereclaimedlumber.com or visit their warehouse at 215 Cannon Avenue in Murfreesboro, TN. Michael Watson can be reached at (615) 427-9759.
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