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Homestead Design 5:  The Barn Raisin’

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Barn end

These events occurred August 1995

In my last article I described some of the preparations Laurie and I went through to get ready for the erection of the first major structure on our homestead: a 24’ x 48’ 2-story barn which we call the Shop.  Here I describe events leading up to the actual “Raisin’ Day” and the raisin’ itself.  Before I get to that I want to take a brief tangent into the pleasures of Spring.

As I write this, Spring is definitely in the air and, if it could bust through the foot or so of snow we have, it could be on the ground too.  I’m sure many of you have either intentionally or accidentally overwintered kale in your gardens.  Those tender young second-year leaves that seem to grow with magical rapidity can be a real delight this time of year.  As well, if your hens are anything like ours, they are responding to increased light and heat with an egg-laying frenzy.  These two wonders of Spring come together in the following recipe, which is among my favorite breakfast treats.

Birds’ Nests

1 onion chopped
8 to 10 (or more) cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
Kale leaves to fill an 8 to 10 quart pot (I tear them into bite-size chunks)
4 eggs
2 oz. sharp cheddar cheese
1Tbs vinegar (I use rice vinegar but your favorite will do)
salt and pepper

I love garlic and we grow a lot so I tend to use large quantities in almost all my recipes.  This one in particular will tolerate a good amount so if you’re a garlic lover like me, let yourself go.  (Incidentally, I never mince garlic and I don’t use a garlic press.  I chop it coarsely.  That way it’s not just a flavor but a real presence in the dish.)  To proceed with the recipe:

In a heavy-bottomed 8 or 10-quart soup pot or cast iron dutch oven heat olive oil.  Sauté onion and garlic until golden.  Fill pot with freshly rinsed kale leaves and cover.  Lower heat and allow kale to steam until volume is reduced by half, stirring occasionally.  Heat oven to 350 F.  Sprinkle vinegar on kale and mix thoroughly.  Remove from heat and make four equally spaced depressions (birds’ nests) in the bed of kale.  Break an egg into each depression taking care not to break the yoke.  Lightly salt and pepper eggs to taste.  Place a square of sharp cheddar cheese on top of each egg.  Cover and place in oven at 350 F for about 20 minutes.  (It’s done when the egg yokes are solid.)  Serve immediately. 

I make this for breakfast and serve it with homefries (another excuse to use 8 or 10 cloves of garlic).  It may sound like a lot of food but Laurie and I manage to eat it all ourselves.  It’s that good.  That said, let’s get back to the barn raisin’ story.

In May of 1995 Laurie and I sent out about 150 invitations to “An Old-Fashioned Barn Raisin’ complete with potluck dinner, refreshments and homegrown music.”  The date we arbitrarily picked was August 19.  We had no idea if we could really be ready by then.  After all we had never attempted anything like it before, but people needed advance notice in order to plan and we vowed to make our best effort.  Laurie finished her teaching duties near the end of May and I had cleared my calendar so we were ready to devote all our attention to the task at hand.  Over the course of the Spring we had focussed on preparing the sill timbers, summer beams and floor joists necessary to frame the platform on which the Shop was to stand.  Over the Memorial Day weekend Laurie’s family came to lend a hand and together we assembled this first piece of the building.  It was our first experience with fitting the timbers together and we came away feeling that our joinery methods were working out quite well,

As June progressed we quickly developed a routine.  I would do the layout work marking each timber for all its various Barn sidecuts.  Laurie would check my work and if she found everything ok she would commence the actual woodworking.  Once I was far enough ahead on layout I would work on joinery too.  The checking of layout was especially important on the more complicated timbers. For example, a typical post for the south side of our building would have three brace mortises, a mortise at the top for a rafter foot, a tenon at the bottom to fit into the sill, two mortises for window framing, two half-lap pockets for siding nailers, and three mortises for second floor connecting and bent girts. This amounted to a lot of marking and a lot of cutting for each timber. And it all had to be right. With timbers weighing as much as 400 lbs. there' was no practical way to test the fit in advance.

Tenons were made with saws (crosscut and rip) and chisels. Mor¬tises were drilled out first using auger bits mounted in a barn beam-boring machine. We purchased this antique beast from a used tool shop. We were extremely fortunate to have a store called Plash tools (in Cobleskill, NY) an hour or so away from us. This place sells primarily used tools of ev¬ery description. (Plash is no longer open on a regular basis but I believe things are still available if you call in advance.)  All homesteaders should make a special effort to seek out these used tool outlets. Not only are the tools cheaper than new, nine times out of ten they are better quality or tools that just don't exist any more. It is amazing how "easy" it is to drill 1-1/2" and 2" diameter holes with the barn beam boring machine. You could never drill this size hole in hardwood with a hand-held electric drill; it would literally take your arm off. We ended up calling this contraption the Jack LaLaine boring machine; after a morning drilling holes you sure got an upper body workout! As each timber was completed, we labeled it and placed it in an appropri¬ate pile. We wanted everything to be in place for the day of the barn raisin.

Shaping timbers was not the only task needing our attention.  We had to mill the 1 1/4” thick boards that we used to cover the first floor deck.  We still had many timbers that had not been harvested from the trees yet.  There was logistical planning to be done for Raisin’ Day and there were pegs to be made; about 450 of them.  These were the trennels or “tree nails” that were to hold the frame together. They were made out of bitternut hickory. First we cut balks: logs 14" long and about 16” in diameter. On one end of the balk we drew a grid of squares 7/8” on a side. Then, using a froe, I split the balk in half, then each half again in half, and so on, following the lines until the balk was reduced to a large number (100-150) of 7/8" square sticks 14" long. Laurie took those and, using a drawknife and shaving horse, made them octagonal in cross-section and put a rough point on one end. Splitting the pegs out with a froe meant that the grain would be continuous from end to end giving us a peg that would not snap when we drove it in.  We tried to make the pegs more or less tapered so they would fit tightly in the hole. Four hundred and fifty pegs were constructed in this manner.

Barn interiorI should mention that when the timbers were drilled to accept the pegs we used a method called draw-boring, which is a traditional timber framing technique.  When the timber containing the mortise (the “hole” or “pocket” into which the tenon fits) was ready for drilling, the location of the peg hole was marked to a particular specification.  For example a brace mortise would be marked 2” from the bottom of the “pocket” and 1 ½” from the face.  A 7/8” diameter hole was drilled on this mark all the way through the timber.  The tenon on the brace that was to fit this mortise was marked exactly the same, that is 2” from the bottom of the tenon and 1 ½” from the shoulder (the part that meets the face of the adjoining timber).  However when it came time to drill the peg hole in the tenon, it was drilled 1/8” closer to the shoulder than indicated by the layout mark.  This offset was traditionally done “by eye” and we followed that tradition although when we did the layout we would include an arrow indicating the direction of the offset to avoid mistakes.  The effect of this is that when the timbers are assembled the peg holes don’t line up.  As the peg is driven through the holes it tries to force the holes into alignment drawing the timbers tightly together.  The process also distorts the peg making it like a spring.  Over time as the timbers dry and shrink, this “spring” continues to exert a drawing force on the joint keeping it tight despite the changing dimensions of the wood. This “automatic adjusting mechanism” is not available in any modern fastening system that I know of.

The days before the raisin' were hectic. We had invited about 150 people and we had no idea how many would really show. Making plans for food, drinks, outhouse facilities and sleeping accommodations took a lot of energy.  In the last days before the big event we started dragging timbers onto the deck and assembling the first-floor bents. (“Bent” is the technical term for an assembled structural section of a timber frame.  It typically consists of uprights (posts), horizontal members (girts) and braces.  If you think of a building as a loaf of bread then a bent is a single slice.  Our building had 5 “slices” or bents over its 48’ length.  Because it is two stories it has both first- and second-floor bents.)
Finally it was August 18th... the day before. People started to arrive. The two dozen or so folks on site that afternoon wanted to try raising a couple of bents. We thought this would be a good idea. This initial crew would then be the "experts" on raisin' day. (Nobody we knew had ever done this kind of construction before, including ourselves!) We raised three bents on the 18th and all the parts fit like the proverbial glove. Wow! Prior to this we had not been able to test a single joint; the timbers were just too big to move around in that manner. We were relieved that at least these first few fit together. We went to bed feeling like the whole project might work after all. Neither of us got much sleep. We were too excited.

The next morning Laurie went out to get bagels for the soon-to-be-arriv¬ing crowd. The "experts" were ready to start building by 8:30 A.M. By 10 A.M. there was a crew of about 40 and the building was literally flying up. We organized all kinds of work crews. Some people were cutting joists to length, others were assembling tim¬bers and still others were moving lum¬ber that was to be used as second floor decking. As soon as there was a sec¬tion of second floor deck, there was a crew hoisting timbers up there and another crew assembling those into second floor bents. And then those second floor bents were being raised.

And more people were arriving. There were crews shucking corn and wrapping potatoes in foil. More crews getting together a "lighting" system (candles) for the party to be held that evening. Everyone was on the move and doing something. We even had two people that we designated as pho¬tographers and a neighbor volunteered to make a videotape.  Laurie’s mom chronicled the event on her laptop computer.  Kids were dig¬ging in the dirt or playing Ping-Pong.  (Believe it or not a good friend of ours picked up the Ping-Pong table at a garage sale for next to nothing think¬ing it would be a fun thing on raisin’ day. It was a hit.)  And dogs (13 of them!) were just racing around being dogs.  All of a sudden the last second floor bent was going up. The purlins were falling into place and it was time to get the tree for the ridge. We had one of the kids cut the tree and deliver it to the completed frame. Laurie and I made the long climb to the peak and nailed the tree to the ridge. We looked at the clock... it was only 2:30! The crew had raised the frame in less than a day. Every joint except one fit perfectly! All of the careful planning had paid off. The one problem spot was not an essential joint. We went back and fixed it a few days later.

We assembled everyone there at the moment for a group photo. Later, we counted the bodies in this picture and found 70-something. At least an¬other two dozen people came after the picture was taken. During the afternoon, some people went swimming, some played horse shoes, and others just relaxed before the big shindig that was to take place that night. For the evening "barn dance" we had asked everyone to bring their musical instruments. My guess is the "band" had 20 members with everyone else singing and dancing. What a celebration!

Later in the day I was wandering around, a little dazed and still in awe of our accomplishment when our friend Gene came up to me.  Gene had traveled all the way from Rhode Island for the event.
“So, when’s the next one?” he asked.
“The next what?” I countered warily.
“The next raisin’!”
I shook my head.  “I don’t think that’ll happen,” I said.  “This is a lot of work.  I don’t think we could ask people to do this again.”
“Are you kidding?” He snorted.  “This is the best time these people have had in years.  Some of these people never had this much fun in their lives.  They’d be tripping over each other to do it again.”
“Would you come if we did another one?”  I asked.
“Damn right I would.  I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

It was a new twist on our plans.  A house raisin’ that built upon the experiences of the barn raisin’.  And a crew of 95 seasoned veterans ready to put their newfound skills to work on the next big project.  The plans started turning in my head.

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