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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 16, 2009

From the editor
Rediscover the worth of old barns
Preserve our past while providing for our future

“Old barns are like old scribes,” wrote Lansing Christman, an old scribe himself. He was in his nineties when he wrote a weekly column for The Altamont Enterprise.

A farm boy from the Hilltowns, the son of a poet, Christman had started writing for the paper when he was 17. He was the editor of The Enterprise during the Great Depression. He couldn’t afford to go to college but went on to be the news director of one of the country’s first television stations and published poetry in papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. He died three years ago at the age of 96.

In his last years, he wrote a weekly column for us called “Countryside Gleanings” with prose that read like poetry.

I often recall his words.

Christman had this to say about barns: “I played in barns as a boy. I worked in them as a man. I rested in them on rainy Summer afternoons with the raindrops on the shingled roof sending me off to sleep while swallows chattered overhead.”

Barns were a constant in his life as they had been for many Americans since the United States was founded.

When the country was built, most Americans were farmers. Barns were necessary structures to house animals and crops but they also became symbols of community spirit as people pitched in to raise them.

Barns were once more important than the dwellings for people. My home is a case in point. I live in a house in Guilderland built by the Crounses in the late 1700s at the foot of the Helderbergs. The original structure was more barn than house. The sleeping loft over the kitchen with the brick hearth for cooking made up the portion meant for people; it is dwarfed by the attached space built for animals.

Our property is typical in other ways, too. The land lays fallow, no longer farmed, and the many outbuildings, including a massive barn, its timbers sold to developers looking for hand-hewn beams, have crumbled and fallen.

A quarter of a century ago, historic barns were considered doomed, obsolete for modern farming needs. But the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1987 launched a campaign called Barn Again! that is emblematic of changing attitudes. The program, according to the National Trust, has shown how historic barns can be adapted for new farming uses ranging from dairy, hog, and cattle operations to machinery or grain storage. Barn preservation techniques have proven to be cost-effective alternatives to tearing down old barns and putting up new ones.

The town of Guilderland is now on the cusp of joining the movement to preserve historic barns. The town board is considering enacting a law that would give a tax break to those who restore or rebuild old barns.

A hearing on the bill will be held May 5 at 7:30 p.m. in the Guilderland Town Hall. We support the bill and urge others to speak out in its favor.

Supervisor Kenneth Runion said that the bill was proposed because, with the current recession, people are looking for ways to improve their properties, but are often afraid of tax increases due to increased assessment values.

“We’re looking for ways to help residents with assessment issues,” Runion told our reporter, Anne Hayden. The exemption would be phased in over the next 10 years, said Runion, and the barns to be rehabilitated would need to be partially constructed before 1936 and originally designed for storing farm equipment, agricultural products, or livestock.

The law may well spur economic development, providing jobs and adding to town revenues with sales and mortgage taxes.

Everett Rau, who farms the land on Settles Hill in Guilderland that has been in his family for generations, says the bill is an excellent idea. Rau, an agricultural historian and member of the Dutch Barn Society, has three historic barns on his property and has overseen the restoration or re-creation of local barns.

Rau says there are at least 25 to 30 historic barns in “savable condition” in Guilderland. “The barns that need to be fixed only have another five to seven years before they fall to the ground or create a fire hazard,” said Rau.

Once they fall, a link with our past is forever lost. Surviving barns have become landmarks, proud reminders of our history. Unlike the pre-fab buildings that blanket our landscape, making Guilderland look like every place else, our remaining old barns distinguish us.

The Dutch barns raised by the original settlers here were the first great barns built in this country. Massive and simple, Dutch barns on the inside feel like a cathedral. Mortised, tenoned, and pegged beams reach heavenward in an “H” shape with columned aisles alongside a central space once used for threshing.

Let’s save them while we still can.

There’s a movement afield to buy local produce, rather than increase global warming by buying produce that has been trucked hundreds of miles. It tastes better, too, and buying local food helps the economy here. As the push for local farming grows, so, too, should the push for preserving farm buildings.

How often do we get to preserve our past while enhancing our future?

Everett Rau stated it well in his typical no-nonsense way: “I think the town would benefit from having its monuments to the early pioneers rebuilt,” he said. “It seems like progressive thinking to create a law to preserve the great history we already have in this town.”

Rau’s thoughts echo the worthwhile words that Lansing Christman wrote about old barns being like old scribes: “They write their rhythmic lines out in the fields far back from the road,” he wrote. “They stand alone, surrounded by the land they once served. Theirs is a script that has lasted well, a chronology of life and time, a journal of the years, a record of harvests from the field...”

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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