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Barns disappearing

January 23, 2011
By DON WILLIAMS, For The Leader-Herald

Today we are losing the old barns that, at one time, were found with most homes. In fact, in some cases, the barn was built before the house. Today, we have small garages housing our high-priced cars along with assorted bicycles, storage boxes, sports equipment, and, who knows what else? Our forefathers made good use of their big barns to house the possessions of their day, possessions that made their work a little easier and their lives a little better.

I have my grandfather John H. Whitman's "day book" where he recorded useful information including his income and outgo. He also had a page entitled, "Barn Contents." He was a carpenter and gave me much of my interest in wood and old tools. I love first-hand information and to know what my grandfather owned at the turn of the last century is a real find. His possessions tell the story of his life in the Adirondacks.

My grandfather not only included an inventory of his barn contents, but he put a value on each item. The most expensive of the barn contents was his four-year-old Bay mare. She was worth $200, and, in my estimation, that indicated she was a good horse. Apparently, she was a well-used animal. He also had a $35 spring cutter, a $10 road cart, a $10 one-horse lumber wagon, and one $10 buggy wagon. His four sets of harnesses were worth $30 and his three "whiveltrees" (whiffletrees or whippletrees) cost $6.

Farming tools also tell the tale of his life. Along with anything else he did, he always had a farm. He had $15 worth of hoes, rakes and shovels. He used a $5 cultivator and a $3 shovel plow. His hand plow/cultivator also cost $3. His apple trees, common to the Whitman ancestors, called for a $5 cider press.

Grandfather Whitman also worked in the woods, much like most of those who grew up in Adirondack country. I have a letter telling of a lumber job that he did at Caroga Lake. His logging tools included three crosscut saws valued at $4, along with two $1 peaveys for rolling the logs. His horses required the whippletrees as well as two pairs of thills (shafts) at $3 each. A $2 set of tackle blocks rounded out his lumberjack tools. He probably had a good axe in his tool box.

Barns are great places to accumulate our "material things" and the Whitman barn also contained $15 worth of "other articles too numerous to mention." The total contents of the John Whitman barn at the beginnings of the 1900s was $438.20, a tidy sum in those days when the average factory worker was making between $400 and $500 per year and a Model-T Ford was selling for that same amount.

Our "treasures on earth" identify us. My grandfather's 1906 inventory tells us that he was a carpenter who worked with wood, he was a lumberjack who got out the Adirondack logs, he was a farmer who fed his family and sold his produce, and he cared for his animals that, along with his tools, made his work easier. Each of these activities required a body of knowledge to get the job done - knowledge passed down from generation to generation and from neighbor to neighbor.

How many of us today can harness a team of horses, or are willing to work all day on one end of a two-man crosscut saw? Growing a garden from the planting to the preserving takes more time than most are willing to give and building our own houses and making furnishings is left, in most cases, to our forefathers. They lived in a different world and their tools tell the story.



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