BETHEL — Western Maine’s early settlers built homes and barns meant to last, sturdy structures perched atop solid fieldstone foundations.

But over the course of nearly 200 years, even the best-laid stones can begin to topple and shift, and that was the case for one of Bethel’s most iconic barns.

Tony Shepley and his family have owned Sunset Farm on Middle Intervale Road for 11 years. That’s a tiny fraction of the lifetime of the early 19th-century farmstead, but long enough for them to know the historic and cultural value of its 190-year-old house and barn.

In her 1959 book, “East Bethel Road,” local historian Eva Bean wrote that the property, known for many years as the Mason Farm, was “rich in early tales of the town.”

Built in 1826 by Ayers Mason (younger brother of Dr. Moses Mason) and his wife, Eunice Hale Mason, the property remained in the Mason family for well over a century. In 1943, ownership passed to Leslie Davis, whose daughter, Phyllis, lived there with her husband, Norman Dock, for the next two decades.

During its nearly two centuries, the barn has housed generations of livestock, from an assortment of working farm animals to Phyllis Dock’s prized Morgan horses, which she and Norman raised at the property they called Sunset Farm.

More recent owners have included the Hollis, Eddy and Penley families.

A labor of love

Shepley, who purchased Sunset Farm from Dick and Wendy Penley in 2005, understands that his main role is that of caretaker for the buildings, and he wants to ensure their survival for at least another 200 years.

So when it became clear that the 36- by 50-foot barn would need to be extensively renovated or replaced, he knew what needed to be done.

“We don’t own that barn,” he said. “We’re just the stewards, the ones who are taking it to the next generation.”

During the arduous process of cleaning out the barn’s basement level and removing years of accumulated dirt, manure, and miscellaneous farm equipment, Shepley had discovered that the original stacked stone foundation was beginning to crumble and shift.

“I knew if we didn’t do anything, it wasn’t going to be very many years before the barn started to go over,” he said.

Contacted about the project, local building contractor Mark Dirago concurred.

“(The foundation stones) were holding up well in some areas, but had fallen in in a couple of areas,” Dirago said. “The damaged areas were causing the upper floors to sag and bow, so if it wasn’t addressed in some form, permanent damage would have occurred to the entire structure.”

In an essay Shepley wrote about the project for his blog, he said he and his family had “more than a few dinner table conversations” about how to proceed — whether to take the barn down and start over, or try to save it.

“My wife thinks I’m crazy,” he said of committing so completely to rehabilitating, rather than replacing, the structure. But he believes that, with proper care and maintenance, it could still be standing another two centuries from now.

“It’s a labor of love,” he said.

Great group effort

First contacted in January, Dirago was enthusiastic about the project from the beginning.

“Honestly, I’m not usually one to get very nostalgic or sentimental about older homes or buildings unless they’re truly special,” he said.

“This barn is obviously very special,” he said. “When you see a barn like this, which is about 190 years old, you can’t help but appreciate the work that the original builders must have put into it.”

Work on the project began in March, when building mover Joe Beote of Gray lifted the barn free of its foundation and used a John Deere log skidder with a winch to slide it sideways 50 feet along I-beam rails he greased with used cooking oil.

Beote, who has more than 35 years of experience and has moved not only sheds, barns and homes, but also hospital operating rooms, restaurants and inns, is capable, practical and “has a real Maine sense of humor,” according to Shepley.

“I asked him why he thought the foundation was starting to crumble now, after 190 years, and he said it was my fault — that I upset the biodiversity of the ecosystem by removing all that manure and stuff from the basement.”

Although they worked well together, and Beote came to regard him with grudging admiration, he never let Shepley forget that he was “from away.”

“He likes to work into the conversation every now and then that I’m from Massachusetts,” Shepley said.

Better than new

During the weeks when the barn sat beside its old cellar hole, perched in the air on stacks of 6- by 6-inch cribbing, Dirago removed and disposed of the old floor system, which he said wasn’t worth saving. After decades of exposure to manure, “the floor boards were pretty nasty,” Dirago said.

The old foundation stones were removed and reserved for later use as retaining walls at the farm, and the basement was excavated to a depth of about two and a half feet deeper than the original, including the removal of what Dirago said was “literally about two feet of old manure build-up.”

The new first floor will be at the same level as the original, but the added depth will allow for a 9-foot ceiling height in the basement, which will see future use as a workshop and storage area.

A poured concrete floor with radiant heat pipes, plumbing for a basement bathroom and new electrical lines are all part of the renovation, upgrades that will expand the versatility of the barn without compromising its historic architecture.

The poured concrete foundation walls are 14 inches thick, and have a 4-inch brick shelf that will allow the installation of large stone veneer above grade, preserving the look of the original granite foundation.

The Shepleys’ commitment to historic preservation is appreciated by Randy Bennett, executive director of the Bethel Historical Society.

“Even though Bethel has lost some important architectural landmarks over the decades, many significant properties remain,” Bennett said.

“It’s always noteworthy when the current owners of exceptional 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century structures recognize their historic associations by choosing preservation and renovation over replacement.”

The project is still underway, with details of the final design continuing to be worked out, Dirago said, adding that when completed, the barn will likely feature a large deck in the rear, with additional doors and windows facing the view down the river.

“The bones of the building are in amazing condition,” he said. “Now that it’s been placed on the new, level foundation, it’s amazing to see how straight and plumb everything actually is, and must have been when it was originally built.

“I’m truly proud to be a part of this project,” he said. 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.