Face Time: Barnologist Don Perkins
Author: Don Perkins | Source: The Sun Journal
No one will ever know what would have happened if Don Perkins’ interest hadn’t been piqued by barns. But the result is a passion that has led him beyond construction techniques into the areas of architecture, agriculture, history, war and many things Maine.
His first book is out — “The Barns of Maine: Our history. Our stories” — and he promises it’s “not my last!”
His day job is at Maine Medical Center, but this carpenter, woodworker and writer remains captivated by barns and the stories and people connected with them.
Name: Don Perkins
Town of residence: Raymond
What is it about barns that has captured your interest? I was a carpenter and woodworker before becoming a writer. Although I don’t do construction anymore, that interest is still very much with me. Lately, history has become an area of study I really enjoy. Barns are a perfect synergy of these different pursuits. I’ve discovered that barns are windows into many things. They lead to interesting topics, like dairy history, lumber technology, even war and disease. Writing my book was not only an education in barns, it was an education in the state itself. I guess I have always been curious by nature, and discovered barns have plenty to hold one’s curiousity.
Was there a moment related to a barn when you realized you had a love for them? Well, carpentry came first, an affair that began with my grandfather. When I was in my teens I fell in love with timber framing books. I wanted to build my own timber-framed house; I wanted to go out and hew trees into beams. I just loved hand tools and old methods. But like most of us, my dreams got sidetracked by “life.” I came BACK to barns in my 30s as a writer because I thought I could make them interesting to readers.
Some barn facts we all should know? Barns were originally for housing grain and not animals. The word “barn” is a middle English term that shares a common spelling with the word barley. This is no coincidence. The French call a barn a “grange,” which is from Latin roots meaning “grain.” The oldest wood-framed barns left standing in the world are in Essex, England and date to 1220 and 1270! These were huge communal “tithe barns.” Barns are one of humanity’s earliest civic buildings. Private barns (and farms) are actually fairly new to civilization. Historically, European farmers paid rent to lords and nobles through part of their grain harvest, which got stowed in the community barn.
The predecessors of Maine barns go back into history. How far back, and to where? See above for part of this answer, but in Maine we simply need to trace back to jolly old England. Most colonists came here from Massachusetts. Most of those early Massachusetts folks were English who received tracts of Maine land for fighting in the Revolution. When you look in many old Maine barns you can see English framing details that hearken back centuries to the mother country. The most prominent detail among them is detailed in my book. The “English tying joint” began in medieval England in the 1200s and lasted for 500-plus years among those of English descent here in New England. It’s hard to contemplate today a construction method lasting half a millennium, but our barns tell the tale! I feel any barn in Maine with this type of joint (and we have several remaining) still standing in the 21st century should be awarded some sort of status or protection since it is one of the last direct visible ties to the Old World.
Your interest goes beyond the architecture and history of barns to the human stories behind them. Can you tell us one of your favorite stories? Early on as a freelance writer for area papers, I had to come up with my own material much of the time. When I broached one editor with barns as a potential ongoing series topic, I had my work cut out for me — I had to actually FIND barns to write about! This was often a challenge; I met some neat folks. My first barn column was a great success and ran for 20 weeks straight. I just drove around and knocked on doors a lot of the time. But I soon realized these buildings were worked by people. I knew I had to include the buildings’ human stories. One of my favorites was meeting an elderly man in the town of Oxford. I just saw an interesting looking barn on Route 26 and knocked on his door. A couple of hours later, I had found a friend in the man who had answered. He lived alone with his dog and was glad to have someone to talk to. He knew a lot about barns and used to be a dairy tester for Waldo County. He told me that when he was just 10 in the 1940s, in another town near Belfast where he grew up, that one night his father woke him at 2 a.m. to say the family barn was on fire — all 86 feet of it, which was attached to the house! Can you imagine? The family lost everything, including all their livestock, and had to relocate. It’s the only newspaper article I reprinted for the book. Unfortunately he never got to see the finished work. He passed away before it was published.
“Barn People are Good People.” That is a statement on your website. What do you mean by that? Well, I learned that they are! I thought it would be neat to classify folks who own barns, maybe even start a movement . . . something to call us barn preservationists! I’ve taken lots of pictures of folks with their barns. One time I gave a presentation to a group and had a picture of some folks with their barn. I said, “and these folks are real barn people.” The phrase stuck in my mind. I thought the slogan would make a nice T-shirt or bumper sticker. I’m going to offer these for sale soon on my website www.ourbarns.com. But it’s really true: Most everyone with a barn is happy to show it to you and relate some childhood memory. I think folks just naturally show their good side at these kind of moments. It’s an honor to celebrate the buildings with them.
Jesus was born in a barn, wasn’t he? Is there something symbolic there? That’s an interesting question and it probably reinforces the “barn people are good people” statement. It’s very fitting. I mean what other structure suggests a natural, unadulterated, yet civilized setting where we shelter the very things that sustain us? And like Jesus himself, barns have a humble quality.
Your favorite thing to do in a barn? Visiting a new barn is always an adventure; there’s still a lot to learn. I probably like taking pictures the most. Climbing around is fun, too!
Read the Full Article at The Sun Journal
Courtesy of The Sun Journal