STRABAN TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Stepping over mummified opossums, the men kicked around chewed-up corncobs and bits of straw to scrutinize the barn’s bones, the old wooden beams that kept it upright. They noted patterns made by saws, the hatchet marks that framers left in the timber before they hoisted it up in this field in Adams County long ago.
After about an hour of jotting down notes and measuring angles, these historical detectives stood in a circle and gave their verdict.
“I’d say we’re looking anywhere from 1825 to 1835,” said David Maclay a barn preservationist.
Maclay, of Arendtsville, is a timber framer by trade, building barns of his own with both modern and traditional tools. On this warm autumn afternoon, however, he was surveying barns for Historic Gettysburg Adams County (HGAC), a nonprofit that seeks out barns in the county to preserve, offering both historic status to owners and grant money that could help them shore up shoddy roofs and keep the elements at bay. This year, the group will dole out $12,000 to owners to help with critical repairs. Money comes from donations and fund-raisers, like HGAC’s sixth annual “Civil War Barn Dance" on Oct. 5 at Beech Springs Farms in Orrtanna.
Adams is home to at least 1,500 historic barns, and HGAC has documented more than 300 to add to its registry over the last 15 years. To be considered “historic,” the structure cannot be younger than 50 years, nor can it be a modern pole or stick-frame barn, Maclay said. Generally, Maclay said, they look for barns that have direct design connections to the Europeans who settled Pennsylvania.
In a state where barns likely outnumber churches, though, Adams is the only county actively preserving them. Other counties, including Cumberland and Franklin, have expressed interest in learning from Adams, Maclay said.
“We’re doing a presentation in York County in the spring and hopefully that will kick-start a lot of projects there,” he added.
Even with the program in place, Maclay said, Adams loses approximately 15 to 20 historic barns a year, either to time or the bulldozer. With thousands of barns in Pennsylvania, statewide losses are much higher.
“Things can go south pretty quickly with a barn, particularly if the roof is bad,” he said.
Adams, Maclay said, is the only county that lies completely within the "Pennsylvania Barn Core Region,” a long corridor shaped like a hurricane pattern, funneling out from a thin slice of Lehigh County southwest to a wide stretch of Pennsylvania and down into Maryland.
The “Pennsylvania Barn” is a very specific design brought to the state by German and Scots-Irish settlers and commonly built between 1790 and 1890. It features a raised berm on one side, an earthen ramp that grants access to the second floor. The opposite wall always has an overshooting forebay, or overhang. A “Sweitzer” is an earlier version of a Pennsylvania Barn, typically dating to 1730 through 1850, and easily identified by its asymmetrical forebay.
Maclay, owner of Pine Hill Woodwork, grew up in Baltimore, but his family was from Adams County, which he visited quite a lot as a child, often wandering into barns. He found their dusty inner sanctums as inspiring as churches.
“Just seeing how all this timber was put together and all that craftsmanship and design," he said. “It’s cathedral-like when you go inside them and look up and up and up.”
The first barn the crew surveyed on this Tuesday afternoon belonged to Susan Millar, a massage therapist whose great-grandparents lived in the stone house in Straban, where she now lives. Millar said she’s spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to secure her nearly 200-year-old Sweitzer-style barn, cutting down the forest that had grown around it, trying to keep doors on and raccoons out, while replacing boards.
“Up here, in the granary, when I took the sides off, ugh, I hauled at least 100 pounds of raccoon poop out, along with all kinds of other stuff,” Millar, 56, said.
A second, much larger barn the crew surveyed on the Reichart family’s 176-acre farm in Hamilton Township turned out to be an “extended” Sweitzer, which had been protected by a shell of metal siding and was in much better condition. It featured many etchings into its stone foundation, some that said 1883 and others that may have dated back even further.
“The barn was falling down,” said Brian Reichart.
In its vast loft were names written in chalk and a well-worn basketball rim, evidence that the Reicharts’ teenage sons use the space often as a hangout. But upon closer examination, there were distinct markings in the beams as well, small etchings the framers made when cutting the wood, to help them assemble the barn when ready, like centuries-old Ikea instructions.
The Reicharts said they know the barn could be the centerpiece of their property, a gathering place for agritourism and small events. Barn weddings are huge, across the country. That’s why the family saved it. They have debated naming their property Sentinel Hill, because of its rolling acres, and their golden retriever, Dash, is its mascot, following the survey crew during the hour it spent there. Mostly, the Reicharts are interested in aging the barn to help tie their whole property together.
“This will help us tell the story of this farm,” Lela Reichart said.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the survey crew believed the Reicharts’ barn had been built between 1814 and 1824, with many additions over following decades.
“This barn is about 50 years older than I thought when I got here,” Maclay said. “It’s quite a specimen."