By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Nostalgia is a real driver but it takes more than “good memories” to move a bank barn from one farm to another.
Mark Van Herk discovered it takes some leeway with measurements, Amish-skill and hard labour from himself and his employees at MVH Construction Inc. in Newton to transform an old bank barn into a new storage shed.
Mark’s parents, Jim and Fern Van Herk, still live on the home farm on Line 52 in Brunner that was named Vanadair Farms Ltd. They are happy to reside there while sons Mark and Brent own and run the farm. The old bank barn on the farm once housed sows and pigs in the bottom and straw in the mow, where Mark and his brother used to build forts. The last pigs in the barn left about 15 years ago and the barn has sat totally empty since then.
“It was starting to weather at the edges,” says Mark, from the backyard of his Newton farm which he shares with Grace VandenHeuval and three daughters, Charlotte, Madelyn and Melody. The new farm needed more machine storage while at the Brunner farm, the bank barn was in the way of an ideal location to set up a dryer.
“I build sheds, houses and barns as a job and I know moving a bank barn is not the cheapest way to gain storage,” says Mark. “But there was the nostalgia and honestly, the challenge.”
It began with jotting down measurements and labelling beams with metal “tickets” in order to rebuild what was taken down. “Every rafter had to join in the same spot because that is where they fit '' explains Mark. A laser pointer revealed the 42 by 74 foot barn was three inches out from one end to the other so Mark knew that was going to be a challenge when forming the concrete foundation the barn would sit on in Newton. The original foundation was stone, covered with urethane, and not worth saving.
Ripping the barn apart involved a lot of “nail pulling” as there were planks on top of the rafters to hold the barn’s former cedar shakes. Then there were green shingles on the shakes, then strapping for steel that was put on in the 1980s.
It was critical to Mark to get it right and preserve as much architectural history as he was able. Mark knows a little about the barn’s history thanks to the Perth County history book. It revealed the barn was built in the 1900s by George and Julie Dallner who bought the lot in 1894. “The land was mostly swamp, which had to be cleared. In 1900, they built a new barn with timber they hewed with a large axe,” reads the article in the chapter, Echoes of Ellice.
Those old chisel layout marks helped aid Mark when he had to cut a foot and half off the bottoms of the timbers because they were starting to rot. There was also a little dry rot on the main gable beam that was chiselled out and replaced with lumber. For the rest, the wood and beams were in great shape.
It took months of “off and on” manual labour for Mark and his workers to take the barn down this spring. All the old barn boards were sent to an Amish businessman outside of Gorrie who ships them to China. Mark was amazed that the businessman’s whole shed was full of reclaimed and restored barn boards.
Another Amish crew helped with moving the main skeleton of the barn and their skill and knowledge of barn building was invaluable, said Mark. Still, an engineer’s plan was necessary to obtain a building permit to reconstruct the barn as a storage shed which Waddell Engineering Ltd. provided.
A crane did a lot of the heavy lifting to move the huge, old timbers. It took three hours to take the timbers down and three hours to put them back up (with a few weeks in between).
It was a fine line reclaiming the old barn, yet making it meet modern needs, admits Mark. The mow had to go to create height for machinery. Also, more doors were needed to allow equipment in and out between the old beams. As a compromise, Mark built two old-fashioned looking sliding doors in the centre of the front of the barn and added two poly overhead doors on each side of the main doors.The outside was cladded in board and batten to keep out the elements.
The end result is a gorgeous structure that can be admired as soon as one drives into the laneway. It’s beautiful, with a nice mix of old and new. It's also completely functional, meeting Mark’s farm needs.
Grace was equally excited about the project and as a nod to the barn’s 80s look with red steel, thought to paint the barn doors red. But it just didn’t look right. Neither did the pebble colour paint they tried next to match the existing shed steel. In the end, she and Mark decided natural wood was best and turned the door around so that the painted side is in, and the natural side is out.
When digging for the new barn’s foundation, they discovered the remains of an old well which led Mark to wish for an old, steel, windmill to be placed near the barn as a nod to former times. They put out feelers and connected with Clarence Dekens from Clinton who had an old windmill they could rescue. Paired with the barn, it makes a postcard-perfect picture.
All in all, the project required months of physical labour, a scratch pad full of Mark’s “figuring” and a vision of how to rescue a bank barn and make it functional for modern times. Yet Mark says all the hard work was worth it.
“I’m really happy with it,” he says. “With all the old timber barns coming down throughout our countryside, this one gains a chance at another century of existence in Perth county.” he said. ◊