22 September 2003
Our heritage - repairing a post-and-beam barn
Jamie Laidlaw

It is a shame when heritage buildings in our region are neglected, torn down or exported from our country. However conservation and restoration activities are very time-consuming, vastly complex and quite expensive. At our farm in Breckenridge we have three heritage barns built by the William Herdman family — a cedar-log barn built in the 1840s, a post-and-beam frame building for horses, built in 1860, plus an adjoining post-and-beam building of white-pine probably constructed in the 1880s. Over the years these buildings protected the hay, sheltered the horses and served as carriage-sheds.

Post-and-beam construction was a more efficient and cost-saving construction method than log construction using dovetail joints. Even so, the white-pine 10 x 10 inch posts had to be hewn by hand using broadaxes. A mortise and tenon was cut for the crossbeams and posts. Knee-braces supporting the crossbeams were notched using wide chisels, hand-saws, hand-augers and axes. When a frame or side-wall was completed, a team of horses and willing hands raised the frame onto flat rocks harvested from local fields. The enormously heavy crossbeams for the haymow above were inserted into the posts and secured with oak pegs. The building was clad with wide white-pine boards, probably purchased in the village of Aylmer.

Unfortunately, over the years, a leaking roof, insects, tree-roots, vines, accumulating manure and severe storms damaged essential parts of this heritage barn, the youngest of the three. Although temporary posts were installed to support the main beams, our barn was gracefully slipping to the earth, tearing its metal roof, departing from its adjacent building. The roof was a series of ominous sagging waves.

In August, several neighbours surveyed the damage, which included numerous rotting posts, severed tenons, and one broken top-beam supporting the rafters. Rafters were separating at the ridge and in some cases had completely rotted away.

Our first chore was to secure the failed tenons inserted into the posts. Numerous chains and load-binders now span the 30-foot interior tying the structure together. In order to raise a post, piers of 6 x 6 inch beams and concrete blocks were constructed, supporting two 2 x 10 inch lifting arms or boards, secured with 1/2 x 6 inch lag screws. A six-ton hydraulic-jack for each pier enabled us to raise a post gradually, one-inch, or for our worst and most awkward corner-post, as much as 17-inches.

The load at each post is considerable. With every lift, the building creaks. You listen carefully. A lifting arm might snap; a crossbeam might tear from its original joint. Gently and slowly the posts are raised, while roadside judges advise us when the roof is level. The barn has a skeletal appearance, with several cross-arms protruding through the wall. Holes are dug, concrete piers are poured, new stems are attached to the posts, and the barn is gently lowered to its new foundation.

Our work is not yet finished. There are some posts to raise or lower, several rafters need replacing, a broken 10 x 10 inch top-beam must be secured at one corner, and board-and-batten siding must be replaced.

I could not have done this without the help and expertise of John Pedersen, André Richard, and Alan Aldred (our official photographer), plus the generosity of Luc Cayer and Steve Olmsted who supplied BC-fir and white-pine to splice the damaged posts. Many thanks.

This barn and other heritage buildings are evidence of the great skill of early settlers in our region, who felled the huge white-pines or white-cedars, dragged these timbers with teams of horses, squared the logs with broadaxes, and cut the mortise-and-tenons for post-and-beam joints using only hand tools. Their craftsmanship is a significant and important part of our heritage.

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