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Preserving New Hampshire History, One Run-Down Barn at a Time

Todd Bookman/NHPR

Cruise along just about any back road in New Hampshire and you’re likely to come across an old wooden barn. The state is home to more than 15,000 of them, each one an iconic reminder of New Hampshire’s agricultural roots.

But after decades of neglect, there’s no shortage of run-down eyesores out there, seemingly one good wind gust away from collapsing.

“There were kitty litter pans up here catching drippings through the roof. There was flea spray by the door to spray your legs because you might get bitten by fleas when you walked through the building,” says Peter Rhoades. “There was rot, it smelled.”

These are some serious real estate red flags, but for Rhoades, this dilapidated barn in North Hampton had promise. He’s in the retail furniture business, and he knew he wanted a space that would say something about his products.

“I needed a place that was unique.”

So he took the risk and purchased the former Drake Farm property on Route 1. Two years and $1.2 million later, Rhoades opened the doors of Hubbingtons inside the renovated barn. The original granite posts and exposed beams greet his customers in a way aluminum siding never could.

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
The barn housed sheep, cows, and now, a three-level inventory of Hubbington's furniture.

“The floors on the first floor are all original,” he says, showing off the space. “They were dry and a little bit smelly, and they did have some cows up here before. So we scrubbed them and coated them with 25 gallons of Waterlux to seal them up and still give them a good look.”

For a guy selling American-made furniture, that look  makes good business sense. But for Beverly Thomas with the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, a structure like this is living history.

“They really tell the story of where we’ve been over the last two, three centuries,” says Thomas, “and they are a big part of why tourists come to New Hampshire. To see the beauty of the farmsteads, and the rolling fields.”

That beauty isn’t always cheap to maintain. For homeowners who don’t farm or raise animals, a barn can be an extra expense. The result is hundreds of agricultural structures being torn down or collapsing each year.

The landscape, she says, is slowly changing.

“The loss of these iconic barns on the roadside that we pass every day, that we don’t really think about them, until they’re gone,” she says. “And then we say, ‘oh shoot, what happened?’”

The N.H. Preservation Alliance wants fewer ‘oh shoots.’

Next year, the group is launching a program called 52 Barns in 52 Weeks to highlight barn restoration projects. It is also trying to expand use of a state tax credit for barn rehabs, and teach owners that saving a barn may not be as expensive as they think.

“I’ve been to barns where the homeowner says, this is a teardown, and you go there, and...no it's not. This barn is in pretty good shape, except for this one area,” says Thomas.

Often, a new roof or some new support beams can help save a barn for another generation, which may have deeper pockets to support a complete restoration.

A Work Of Art

Ian Blackman specializes in restoring barns, from minor fixes to total makeovers. He’s spent much of the past two years in New Hampton.

“We call this the Apple Barn because this was an orchard,” he explains.

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
Ian Blackman inside the 'Apple Barn' in New Hampton, which dates to the 1790s.

The Apple Barn sits high on a hill, overlooking pastoral fields with the Belknap Mountains in the distance.

When this orchard closed, the barn, which dates to the 1790s, was left to crumble. Blackman and his crew are putting it back together. They use power tools, but also centuries-old methods for laying the stone foundation and securing rafters.

He points up to a 40-foot long original timber that was a sapling, he estimates, in the early 1600s.

“You think about what the landscape was at the time, and what it was like, boy, it is awfully nice that those aren’t going to be rotting away and falling down,” says Blackman.

Spend a little time with people that are into barns, and you realize just how into barns they actually are. For Blackman, each one is a time capsule, a marvel of engineering, and a piece of art.

“It is sculpture, it is beautiful,” he says. “Now, it was built for a purpose. It was built to house sheep and house fodder and stuff like that, but think about the extra care that went into building this as strong and as beautifully as they built it, whereas today we would just throw up a steel building, that no way has this strength and this connection.”

He says the hard work of building the barns is already done. It’s now just on us to keep them alive.

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
'It is sculpture, it is beautiful,' says Blackman. Timber used in these structures date to the 1600s.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.

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