Dutch Barn Preservation Society

Dedicated to the Study and Preservation
of New World Dutch Barns

NEWSLETTER, FALL 1993, Vol. 6, Issue 2

Vincent J. Schaefer, 1906 - 1993: A Remembrance

Vince Schaefer and the restored Larger Wemp barn in Onesquethaw.

by Thomas Lanni
Only five years ago I had the opportunity to attend a lecture at the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center (ASRC) given by Vince Schaefer, who was then Director Emeritus of ASRC. I was doing research at ASRC for my PhD. in physics and had heard about this fellow who had started the ASRC in the early 1960's with a group of colleagues from the General Electric Research Lab. The corridors of ASRC contained photos of Vince in the Rockies with high-schoolers enrolled in his Environmental Studies Workshop, taken in the late 1960's. It was with some preconceptions then that I sat and watched this big, smiling bear of a man speak so plainly on a subject that he clearly held dear to his heart. My surprise, at the time, came from :he fact that Vince had chosen to hold forth, to this audience of scientists, not on the atmosphere or environment, but on an eighteenth century agricultural architectural form peculiar to the Hudson and Mohawk river valleys and their environs, which he referred to as a Dutch barn!

After the talk I approached Vince because his words had evinced in me, although not a particularly active student of history, certain stirrings. At that time I happened to be living on an eighteenth century Dutch farm, which happened to be located on the Onesquethaw Creek, a tributary of the Hudson River. I relayed to Vince this information, which seemed to delight him, and I explained that none of our outbuildings seemed to conform to his descriptions, although I would certainly investigate this further. Beaming from ear to ear, Vince reiterated that these barns were somewhat rare and sadly were disappearing from the landscape through disinterest and neglect.

It was only later in our acquaintance that I came to understand why Vince was smiling as he told of the plight of these once great barns. He foresaw our meeting as an example of one of his favorite intellectual processes, whereby an accidental or unintentional happenstance brings about an insight or discovery of some kind. This synthesis is called serendipity, after the Princes of Serendip, who made a regular habit of such things. An important feature of this phenomenon is that it is the open and prepared mind that most often enjoys such "lucky" occasions. All that I have learned about Vince's multifaceted career, and my own experience with him, has convinced me that he was a true prince of Serendip, not by birth, but by diligence in preparing his mind and by having the confidence to follow the natural lead of his intuitions.

As I returned to my work after that first meeting with Vince there was a certain sense of excitement, a feeling that I was involved in some greater purpose, a feeling that would revisit me after future conversations with Vince. Thus encouraged, I proceeded to make inquiries in the neighborhood and at the library, and began to learn much about the history of the area and of the farm where I lived. Evidently there had been a Dutch barn on our farm that was bulldozed in the 1950's by a previous misguided owner, and there were others still standing in the vicinity, which I visited. Other information that I acquired on these forays served to deepen my appreciation of my local surroundings, and of the people, both past and present, who had chosen to live there. When I told Vince of my findings he immediately suggested that it would be a good idea to try and find a barn that needed a good home and move it to our farm. I transmitted the gist of this idea to Carl Touhey, the Albany businessman who owned the farm, and he too became enthusiastic. It was only a short time until Vince had convinced Carl to buy and restore the endangered larger Wemp barn, one of the finest Dutch barns still in existence.

As I was the caretaker on this farm and Mr. Touhey was often away, I became the de facto supervisor of this project of dismantling, restoring and reerecting this magnificent barn. Fortunately, we had hired experienced contractors to do this work, but for me it was a trial by fire and I learned a great deal about these structures (and much else) that only a few months before I had never heard of. The barn now stands proudly on the flats of the Onesquethaw, is open as an educational museum to the public and school groups, and is used by the community and the Dutch Barn Preservation Society as a gathering place. Throughout the barn project Vince was there, taking pictures, making suggestions, and a working relationship and friendship developed between us. In the ensuing years I met with Vince many times, and whether we talked of the environment, or barns, or history, I always felt fortunate to have access to his vast store of knowledge and experience. It was through Vince that I became a Trustee and officer of the DBPS and I dare say a true barn aficionado. This can be attested to by the fact that I never travel without DBPS brochures and am loathe to pass by any barn that looks like it may be a Dutch barn without stopping to have a look. Like Vince I often go out my way to take an unknown road in the hopes that a discovery may be made, as indeed some have.

These memories of Vince serve to highlight a point about individuals and organizations, about the future and the past, and about order and chaos in this world. Vince Schaefer has died, and has left an incredible legacy. There are the scientific discoveries, the books and manuscripts, works of art in sculpture and photography, and there are great barns that would not exist but for Vince. There are organizations, the ASRC, the DBPS, the Van Epps Society, that were formed around principles which he espoused and of whose importance he was able to convince others. There are the people, his friends and family, the many students and colleagues, and countless others who were touched in some way by his kind and generous spirit. All of these things and much more are here now for us to enjoy, as Vince would have enjoined us to do. But I think he would also have cautioned us about resting on his laurels, there is much work to be done, many things to be learned, all that has been built up is always subject to the inexorable ravages of entropy and time. Also, I believe Vince would take us to task for ascribing this vast legacy to him, he would no doubt remind us of all those who came before him and who worked with him, and he would surely remind us of the role of such unknown forces as serendipity and of God. I suppose Vince would want us to celebrate his life by taking up our responsibility for the world around us as he so aptly did, and like him to be teachers by example to those who will follow us in time. Vince is gone, but the intellectual curiosity and the respect for nature and our history that characterized his life, and that he fostered in so many of us, must be carried on...

The Trustees of the DBPS have seen fit to dedicate this issue of the Newsletter to Vince Schaefer. He was a founding member of the Society and a veritable guiding light in the workings of the group since its inception. I know many others could recount stories similar to the one above about how Vince influenced and inspired their interest and dedication to the study and preservation of Dutch barns. Vince will be missed, for his insight and his diligence in lobbying for this cause and for the good humor and fun he brought to group activities. We will all have to work a little harder if we are to fill his shoes. So let this serve both as a tribute to the individual, Vince, and his past endeavors, and an encouragement to the group and a heralding of our future accomplishments.

Finally, we have chosen to include the following piece written by Vince for the Miscellany in 1988. It is here not because it is his greatest work, but because it clearly represents his views on the preservation of Dutch barns.


The Future Existence of Dutch Barns in the Northeast

by Vincent J. Schaefer
The Dutch barns of the Mohawk, Schoharie and Hudson Valleys remain as one of the few tangible connections between the early pioneer settlement of Eastern New York and the present era. These areas were settled by the Holland Dutch, German Palatines and a few Swedes starting in the early 1600's. The decline of the farm economy in the Northeast is posing a rapidly cresting concern for the future welfare of these unique structures. The distinctive structural design of the Dutch barns reflects the tradition of the Dutch and northern Europe homeland. These barns are essentially replicas of those built in Holland in the early 1600's and earlier. Nearly identical architecture can be seen in the few structures remaining in Europe of that time period, including features also present in homes of that era. Fortunately, some of our barns are still used on a daily basis on working farms and so long as the roofs remain leak free and fire is avoided, can persist so for another century or more. Others are not so fortunate. Where originally the Dutch barn was the dominant structure on a farm containing from 40 to 100 acres or more, many of them are now surrounded by single family homes, condominiums and even industrial structures. As population pressure builds, the farm economy dwindles and real estate developers plan, the future destiny of many of the remaining Dutch barns becomes precarious at best. What should happen under these circumstances? That is a hard question to answer.

As the old farmhouse is modernized, restored or destroyed, the other farm buildings bulldozed, several things can happen to a Dutch barn. If its roof has not been neglected, its timbers are likely to be intact with their massive anchor beams, posts, purlin plates, rafters and braces. Choice ones may even have their rafters covered with a plank roof, wide boarded original siding, wooden hinges on the large gable end wagon doors and Dutch iron hinges on the animal doors. The early barns were obviously built by master builders who apparently enjoyed working with the huge virgin pine and oak trees available nearby. Not only were the timbers fashioned by broad axe but many were finished by adze, the resulting surfaces being so smooth and flat that they appear to have come from a planing mill. Some of the massive anchor beams were even chamfered as giving finishing touches to the timber. When such an intact barn is likely to be detached from its original central role in the farm economy there are several alternate uses available. If the developer has a sense of propriety, a respect for local history, heritage and posterity, he will use the barn as a central theme, respecting its integrity and using it with as few modifications as possible as a recreational and cultural center of his new development. A second and less desirable alternative is to carefully dismantle the barn, reerecting it somewhere else either as close as possible to its original configuration or with as few modifications as possible. This procedure is the one currently in favor. Such action has led to the removal of a basic part of our local historical tradition. It is a rare situation in which a barn is taken down without some loss of its integrity when it is reerected. In most instances when a barn is to become a "second home" or a studio for a city dweller, drastic changes may be expected. While the timbers may survive the dismantling and transportation activity, it is likely that many, many more subtle features will disappear. Even this however may be better use of these ancient structures than to have them disappear by fire, rot, or under the blade of a bulldozer.

The ruin of a significant cultural treasure: the Van Bergen Dutch barn of Leeds, Greene County, New York.

I write with a degree of understanding of this rapidly developing problem. In 1947, I bought what appeared to be a magnificent very old Dutch barn which was apparently built in 1701 on one of the original farms on the Great Flats adjacent to the pioneer village of Schenectady, settled in 1661 by Arent Van Curler. This barn was located on the western edge of a farm adjacent to a beautiful cold spring. This barn was among the early ones erected on the Great Flats and was built by or for Johannes Teller who had survived the Schenectady Massacre of 1690. After I had bought the barn with my hope in 1947 of eventually converting it into a museum, I discovered that because of a long neglected roof covering, rot had become established in the massive posts, the purlin plates and the long roof rafters. At that time I could see no way I could possibly replace these damaged timbers. Even today it would require a tremendous effort and cost and the result would have questionable merit. Consequently, I was forced to dismantle the barn, salvaging all of the sound timbers, siding, doors and floor planking. I decided to see whether I could take down the barn alone and eventually was successful in doing so except for the massive posts and anchor beams. As the dismantling process proceeded, I obtained a series of excellent photographs of the barn structure and its simple but highly functional design. From these photographs I have been able to construct an accurate scale model of this barn at a reduction of 24 to 1. Thus the finished model is 25 inches square and 21 inches high. The lean-to on the northwestern side has an area which was originally 25 feet long and 10 feet wide.

As the field research of our Society proceeds, it becomes apparent that there are probably at least 100 Dutch type barns still in existence in 1988. At least half of them however face a very uncertain future. Many of the better ones have been integrated into a barn complex on working farms so that their pristine condition in many cases ceases to exist. A few of these are still in excellent condition after more than 200 years. Those facing an uncertain future range from the few still in excellent condition to the majority which are no longer being used effectively and face the distinct possibility of neglect and eventual destruction from fire, rot, snow loading and wind storm. Those which are in fairly good shape but without a useful function are likely to be sold by the current owners to the highest bidder. When this happens and the barn is removed our region loses one of its most important linkages with the past. At least a few of the best ones should be designated as National Historic Landmarks, protected from further change and developed into a formal part of our national heritage. In Switzerland, Sweden and other European countries extensive collections of ancient structures are accumulated, meticulously restored and perpetuated as outdoor museums with government sponsorship and continuing support. In America a few such assemblies have been established as tourist attractions under private initiative. Perhaps this is the best we can do.

Meanwhile we hope that our Dutch Barn Preservation Society can raise public consciousness to appreciate the intrinsic value and importance of these ancient structures so that they are better appreciated by their owners as well as the general public. The research minded members of the Society should bend every effort to glean as much solid information as possible from the barns still remaining. There are many fascinating questions about these Dutch barns and great satisfaction to be had in obtaining the answers.

There are a number of interesting features in this barn contract. First, it must be pointed out that in 1801, both the town and the city of Schenectady were in Albany County. The builder, Abm. M. Smith, was from the Third Ward, what is now Rotterdam. Perhaps most important to us is the insertion of the word "Dutch" in the description of the barn on line 10. Evidently this was enough to specify exactly, even at this date, what sort of barn was to be built. The dimensions that follow include only the perimeter and the height of the stable outside wall posts. There is some uncertainty about the word "schowers" (?) in line 14; it does not seem to be Dutch, and by context appears to refer to trees. The contract specifies that the barn is to be completed in less than six month's time, for which the builder is to be paid $8 for hewing the frame, $20 for raising, and $42 for completion, a grand sum of seventy dollars!


Research Finds: Contract for the Construction of a Dutch Barnfrom the Collection of Donald A. Keffer, West Glenville.

The Dutch Barn Preservation Society

c/o The Mabee Farm Historic Site
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Rotterdam Junction, NY 12150

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