Barn preservationist advocating

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WEST PARIS – After working hard to save her own historic barn, Ellen Gibson has learned how to better preserve more of these fast-disappearing relics from Maine’s agricultural past.

And now, using newly-acquired expertise, Gibson said she would like to assist others who are eyeing their sagging, weathered barns and wondering how to prevent them from completely falling down.

Preserving old barns with their high, imposing roof lines, dusty haylofts and dim corners sometimes filled with rusting iron tools not only helps maintain a connection to the past, but also is part of ensuring a vital future, Gibson said.

“What Maine has to offer in an economic sense to its prosperity over time is its landscape, quality of life, and quality of products. And barns are part of that landscape,” Gibson said Tuesday.

But it is hard for people to spend scarce resources on a decaying barn, and “barns are disappearing from our landscape,” said Christi Mitchell of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. “Many of them no longer have an economic value to the property owner, and it’s difficult to justify putting money into them,” Mitchell said.

Yet Gibson has come up with a plan to save her own roughly 187-year-old barn and thinks her strategy could work for others.

Although the idea is still being hammered out, Gibson said she would like to start a service called Barn Story that would assist barn owners in documenting their buildings with photos and researching their histories through archival searches and oral interviews with elderly neighbors.

“The first step in saving the barn is knowing more about it,” Gibson said. “It provides information that can be used for public outreach, so people become more involved and interested in the buildings they pass every day.”

The history of her own barn, which has been in her family for seven generations, has been recorded or illustrated through the decades, perhaps most memorably in elegant linoleum prints by Gibson’s aunt, Jane Porter Gibson, and in a laconic but poetic diary written by her great-grandfather William Child Stearns.

With these artifacts, Gibson created a 2007 calendar that she sold to raise money to help match a $10,000 grant she received earlier from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. About 200 of the original 1,000 copies remain, she said. They are available at Books-N-Things in Norway and on her Web site, www.stearnshillfarm.com

“I’m lucky because I have diaries and a family history to guide me, so I have been able to create a timeline that looks at what happened with the family and compares it with what we see in terms of additions and changes in the barn,” Gibson said.

Mitchell said people who are raising awareness about the endangered condition of barns in Maine are much needed.

“Every time I travel to a community, someone tells me about a barn that just came down or a barn that is about to fall down. I see it a lot, I hear it a lot,” she said.

Roxanne Eflin, executive director of the architectural advocacy group Maine Preservation, said while there are a lot of barn lovers in Maine, there isn’t one organization “concisely” dedicated to them.

And not only do barns need to be better promoted, but Eflin also said it is also time Maine took stock in what barns are still standing.

“We’ve been trying to figure it out in getting the general public involved in a backyard barn count,” Eflin said, wondering if it would be possible to organize a movement of volunteers who could count all the historic barns in their neighborhood or county.

Meanwhile, Gibson said she has done some shingling on the carriage house connecting the barn to the house and will start on the foundation next summer.

The first and most important steps in preserving a barn are restoring and weatherproofing its top and bottom.

“If you can see light from the roof, you got to get the roof patched,” Eflin said. “If your foundation stones are moving,” then you must replace the foundation.

And that should keep a barn sound for a long time.

“We need to save our small town rural character,” Gibson said. “If we don’t, we literally lose our soul and become anywhere USA. And then what do we have?”

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