Restored Revolutionary War-era barn is reopening as a living history site in Chester County
Preservationists worked for years to dismantle, relocate, and reassemble what’s likely one of the oldest barns in the region.
It was the early fall of 1777, and the war was going badly for the American colonists.
From his base in Tredyffrin Township, British Gen. William Howe was pillaging the countryside in an offensive that would see him lead the British to victory in the Battle of Brandywine and eventually occupy Philadelphia.
Part of a headquarters complex, perhaps used to keep officers’ horses, was a sturdy log barn built about a half-century earlier in what is now Berwyn, according to the Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust.
It was a common sight in those times throughout the mid-Atlantic: a two-story log crib barn built into an embankment, the upper half used for threshing grain, the lower half perhaps for livestock.
Almost none survive in eastern Pennsylvania, and of those that do, none is likely older than the Jones Log Barn, now tucked into the Chesterbrook development in Wayne.
And none may have been less likely to make it well into the 21st century.
Twenty years ago, the barn was crumbling, and its owner was planning to tear it down to settle an estate. But starting this fall, it will become the Jones Log Barn Living History Center, chronicling farm life in 18th-century Pennsylvania, Tredyffrin’s role in the Revolutionary War, and construction of barns like this.
It was an unlikely survival, a blend of logs from the original and from the decades in between, reassembled from its original location 1.8 miles away. It was made possible by donations of money and materials, and guided for almost 20 years by Pattye Benson, who heads the Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust.
“I come at it naturally … our local history is what makes every community unique,” said Benson, a native of Washington who lives with her husband, Jeff, in a 1690s stone farmhouse in Tredyffrin where they run a bed-and-breakfast called Great Valley House.
Benson calls the barn “a tangible reminder of Tredyffrin Township’s rural heritage, a glimpse into 18th-century farm life.”
But, she said, “I never expected it to take this long.”
Searching for a site
Area architectural historians consider the barn an outstanding example of early Welsh-American construction.
And even if saving it was an easy call, where to put its reincarnation was tougher — not to mention raising the money following the Great Recession. The original location, now private land, wasn’t available, and although there was talk of putting it in a local park, local preservationists believed that wasn’t historically appropriate.
So after the original barn was dismantled in 2001, logs that might be usable were stored in two barns in Valley Forge National Historical Park and in Tredyffrin Township, as the search for a new location proceeded. Slowly.
The search ended at the Duportail House in Chesterbrook, a 1740s property with an adjacent 1790s barn that’s now used as a wedding venue.
The farmhouse, which served over the decades mostly as a private residence, was named after the French Gen. Louis Duportail, brought to the United States by Benjamin Franklin to serve as chief field engineer for the colonial army. The land it sits on was purchased by the Fox Cos. in 1974 and incorporated into the Chesterbrook development when it was approved four years later.
A second barn at the site had burned down in 1985, and the Jones Log Barn, named for one of a string of previous owners, would be rebuilt in what is essentially the “footprint” of that building.
Benson remembers a prominent preservationist, the late Neil McAloon, who owned the property containing Howe’s headquarters, saying, “Pattye, this is where the barn is meant to go.”
Roughly $500,000 has been raised for the ongoing project, but Benson said that number is deceptive because so much has been given in-kind.
Nonmonetary donations ranged from tools and farm equipment from the headquarters of Continental Army Brig. Gen. Enoch Poor, given by Frederick and Lura Wampler of Wayne, to an entire historic barn (for usable lumber) from Fritz Lumber Yard in Wayne and its owners, the Eadeh family.
Two barns come together
Benson describes the reconstruction — which took about three years — as partly “the ‘marriage’ of two historic barns: the original Jones Log Barn and the Fritz Barn,” built in 1863, which also included vintage siding, doors, hardware, and floorboards.
The architectural plan was drawn by the restoration architects Frens & Frens of West Chester, and the actual log assembly was done by Scott Walker, a Montgomery County-based timber framer who grew up in Atlanta and was intrigued by working in Southeastern Pennsylvania because “this is where the barns started. They’re the oldest buildings we have.”
He specializes in barns, although his other woodwork includes the bar at the Israeli restaurant Zahav in Center City.
He said he finds that the 21st century tends to look at barns as “places to store stuff” rather than vital parts of everyday life.
Because much of the Jones Log Barn was unusable or missing, fresh logs had to be scouted from as close as an easy drive away to as far as Lancaster County and State College: White oak for bug and rot prevention, live oak, hickory, sweet gum.
One third of the flooring, half of the rafters, and one fourth of the roof system and door jambs are from the original barn.
And the barn couldn’t be assembled on its current residential location because, Walker said, “I couldn’t turn this into a construction site.”
So this meant working at a half-dozen job sites around the area, peeling logs in 100-degree heat or 20-degree cold or rain.
At one point, Deane Madsen, of Madsen Tree Service of Coatesville, took logs an hour south of the main site to be inserted into a frame.
The living history exhibits, designed by Miller Designworks of Phoenixville, were largely mounted on materials from the original barn and were supplemented by tables and benches made from original materials. They include, for example, a primitive seed separator dating from about 1900.
They were installed on a few sparkling September days, carried in by company president Steve Miller with help from his son, Mason, as Benson looked on.
“Very exciting,” she said, understatedly.
The Jones Log Barn Living History Center will be open seasonally from April 1 through Oct. 30, and other times by appointment. For more information or to arrange a tour, contact Pattye Benson, Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust president, at 610-644-6759.