The Beloved Barn at Heritage Farm: Its First Restoration

"The next day, my view included four or five Amish carpenters on scaffolding, fearless and sometimes shoeless, shingling the steep barn roof," Diane Ott Whealy, in her 2011 memoir.

"The next day, my view included four or five Amish carpenters on scaffolding, fearless and sometimes shoeless, shingling the steep barn roof," Diane Ott Whealy, in her 2011 memoir.

In the late 1980s, just like today, the historic barn at Heritage Farm was in need of help—lots of help. In 1987, not long after Seed Savers Exchange bought Heritage Farm—arguably one of the most beautiful farms in Iowa—Kent Whealy and Diane Ott Whealy, founders of the organization, learned that the homemade laminated bows that supported the barn’s roof were weakening, and, consequently, posed a real threat to the roof's stability. Thus began months of restoration, conducted by Amish carpenters from Canton, Minnesota, and financed with a $20,000 grant from the Ruth Mott Foundation. In 2011, Diane devoted a section of her book Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver, to the work the Amish carpenters did to restore the barn. An excerpt of that section follows:

The Amish Connection
Even though Colonel Taylor settled the property and many other families have since lived there, this farm is still known locally as the Halse Place. Roger Halse, who grew up on the farm, says the original house had burned in the 1920s and was rebuilt. The next year, the barn burned. He was not sure of the exact date the new barn was constructed, but written on the wallboard was “Monday, November 2, 1929—putting up Aerial,” referring to the barn’s metal cupola and weather vane.

It was a beautiful barn, gray and weathered, but the the Gothic-style roof needed our help. The roof rose 30 feet from the loft floor in great curved arches; the 65 x 32-foot loft was completely open, and the homemade laminated bows that supported the roof were just not strong enough. Roger Halse said the roof sank 12 inches within the first year.

There were several barns in the area with the same design; the barn at Heritage Farm is one of a few still standing, thanks to Ray Pritchard. When Ray and Joanne bought the farm in the early 1980s, the roof had sagged six feet in the center of the peak, and the bows on the sides of the roof had bulged outward to compensate. Ray recognized the real danger that the roof might collapse and invested about $2,000 to temporarily halt the sagging. He brought in a crew that used steel cables and turnbuckles to pull the bows back into place. Then they jacked up the sagging bows along the peak with eleven 26-foot-tall 4x6 posts. A month later, there was a 17-inch snow that would surely have collapsed the roof had not he stabilized it.

We respected this barn and felt the need to preserve its history, but we weren’t sure how to proceed. Over the winter, Seed Savers Exchange had been given several options from contractors, carpenters, and barn builders, but they generally involved replacing the bows, which meant that a good portion of the roof would have to be taken off. One thought that occurred to us was that the Amish still had barn raisings and put up many post-and-beam structures in the area. Our Amish friend Dan Zook owned a sawmill near Canton, Minnesota, and we asked his opinion. He came down in the fall of 1987 to get a firsthand look at the problem and said he would give it some thought over the winter months.

Early the following spring, Dan wrote that his brother Eli, who did most of the timber framing, was willing to come down with him and discuss the damaged barn bows. . . . They went up to the loft and started brainstorming. Suddenly the solution became clear to Eli. They would need to build two post-and-beam structures. Each side of the loft would have six 24-foot-tall, 6x6 pine posts, topped with a 6x6 oak plate that would run the length of the barn. There would be two 45-degree angle braces near the top of each post. The post-and-beam structures would be held together with wooden pegs. Eli said that pushing all the bows back into place would also bring the sides of the barn back into alignment; none of the bows would have to be replaced.
. . .

The crew arrived in late March, just before the due date of our fifth child, and provided a welcome distraction. In the beginning, they had a driver, but most days they traveled the 10 miles between Canton and our farm by horse and buggy, its horses unhitched and grazing in the corral. . . . It took six Amish carpenters two days to complete the post-and-beam structures. Then they added bracing to every second bow along the edges of the loft. The bows had once again taken their original shape; the unneeded steel cables hung in curved arcs in the middle of the loft. When the scaffolding came down, the loft was magnificent.

Another Iowa barn would live on.

The next day, my view included four or five Amish carpenters on scaffolding, fearless and sometimes shoeless, shingling the steep barn roof. The day the new cedar roof was finished, I looked out to see sunshine lighting up the peak, reminding me of the gold dome on the Iowa State Capitol building. The carpenters then built red-oak benches along the wall in the loft for seating, and a large red-oak stage on the west end. Dan and crew finished their work on July 8, 1988, having spent six weeks of 10-hour days. It wasn’t totally finished, but SSE’s members could officially initiate the barn at the 1988 Campout.

Once again, thirty years later, the barn at Seed Savers Exchange is in dire need of repairs. Your gift will help fund critical repairs that will help ensure the barn stands for years to come. Repairing the barn this year is necessary so that this structure can remain a functional building on our seed farm. A symbol of our agrarian roots and our connection to the land, it is also where we continue to house educational events, process seeds, and inspire visitors with the story of our work protecting our heirloom seed supply.

Construction is scheduled to start this fall, and you can play an important part in making it happen by making a gift to the Restore the Barn at Seed Savers Exchange fundraiser.