Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Northeast's Invasion of the Barn Snatchers

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Northeast's Invasion of the Barn Snatchers

Article excerpt

Lots of people, it seems, want a piece of New England - maybe an L.L. Bean coat or a jug of Vermont syrup or a peep at the autumn leaf show. And the locals are usually happy to oblige.

But now it seems a few folks from "away" - as some Yankees call their fellow Americans - have gone too far. Rich people in California, Sun Valley, the Hamptons, and elsewhere are paying as much as $500,000 to dismantle, export, and reassemble entire New England barns, complete with hay lofts and hand-hewn timbers. They convert them into homes, studios, even swimming-pool pavilions. But suddenly a growing number of Yankees are mobilizing to halt this "barn drain" from their hillsides. Some are even using extreme measures.

In this era of McMansions and strip-mall sprawl, outsiders may covet these authentic symbols of Yankee charm and simplicity. But they're up against locals who see their cause as nothing less than a struggle for New England's soul.

Case in point: A brawl here in the Merrimack river valley over a lemon-yellow behemoth called the Rolfe barn, which dates to the 1880s. The local city council has voted to use the legal hammer of eminent domain to prevent it from being dismantled and shipped to an anonymous buyer out west.

The case seems destined for court.

The truth is that most barns that New England loses these days are felled by fire or decay - not outsiders. Yet folks here get most riled over what they see as an invasion of out-of-state barn snatchers. To some, a New England barn sitting in the Hamptons is as culturally callous as having the Elgin marbles in London.

"These are some of our most important cultural pieces," says Thomas Durant Visser, author of "Field Guide to New England Barns." "They're symbols of a way of life that is deeply rooted in the American spirit - in the ideals of individuality and that one can sustain oneself by hard work."

And it's not surprising there's high demand for these barns from other parts of the nation. "There's a sense that people look back to New England as America's hearth," says Dr. Visser, "and to its barns as touchstones of authenticity."

New England's rustic heirlooms

Walk into a Yankee barn, and you're likely to see 150-year-old axe marks running up and down 12- or 14-inch-thick wooden beams. Smells still linger from so many harvests of hay or corn - and generations of horses or cows or pigs.

The Rolfe barn, built by one of the town's early prominent residents, soars nearly 30 feet high. Locals say it's been a centerpiece of town life for more than a century. They recall that in the summers, neighborhood kids played pick-up baseball in its great shadow. In the winters, when horses with sleighs came charging out of the barn, kids would hitch up their sleds - and get towed to the top of a nearby hill.

Yearning for past glories

Today, though, like most New England barns, it's hardly used. …

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