A Brief History

“It’s a good example of a five bay, gable-roof dairy barn," said Mary Asmus, looking up at the interior wooden structure of a barn off Snell Road in Oakland Township, northern Oakland County.     "It's post and beam construction with mortise and tenon joints and hand-hewn timbers with the bark still on them,” she exclaimed.

Mary Asmus, a key member of a team of Oakland Township Historical Society (OTHS) members who documented barns of all kinds in the township since January 2002.   The team got started by contacting the Barn Survey Project of the Michigan Barn Preservation Network and MSU Museum in Lansing and using their barn handbook to learn about old Midwest barn styles and characteristics.  The Barn Survey Project, being done by local volunteers around the state, count and document mainly 50-year and older barns, noting styles, uses and construction methods.  

The survey is meant to be reconnaissance or overview level, but don't tell the OTHS team that.  They begin each site visit by obtaining owner permission, checking the farm history through a series of township maps back to 1857 and preparing the forms for building documentation. Then the team visited the site and gained as much information as possible about the inside and outside of the buildings at the barn location.    They photographed, measured, and noted interior as well as exterior characteristics of each barn and building.  

The information was gathered and categorized for similar characteristics as well as unique features. 

'The first thing they found out, was the barn turned into a farmstead with outbuildings, vestiges of windmills, wells, fencing, and of course, the farmhouse at each site".  "You just have to look a little...it 's all there", said Diana Borrusch, another team member.

Almost every site had an unusual feature of some kind as well.  One barn had a carriage lift that hoists carriages to the upper loft during the winter, another had intricate brickwork in the milk house, and another had a wooden hay track, unusual cow stanchions and unique door hardware.  One barn had a gravestone marker inside!  Another had the owner's name and the date, June 22, 1879, in stylized script on the walls. 

While the barn 'surveyors' did not claim to be experts, they learned to estimate the range of dates of construction and some barns show signs of the late 1800s.  Most of the township barns surveyed so far are gable- or gambrel-roofed and many have hand-hewn timbers taken from a single tree.   Farmsteads have milk houses; pump houses, granaries, machine sheds, and other outbuildings mainly related to the dairy or orchard industries.

After visiting so many sites, the barn survey team of six members, Dave and Diana Borrusch, Tom and Mary Asmus and Chuck and Janine Saputo have learned some useful techniques.

1.      Bring an industrial strength tape measure, maybe two.  Bring plenty of film, backup camera, a flashlight, forms, paper and pencils.   Use two people to take measurements including estimating the height. Yes there are simple ways to do this. 
2.      Identify the best photographer and let them work while other team members talk to the owners if they are present and wish to share information.
3.      Ask for the farm name and any artifacts or unusual features noticed by the current owners. The farm names are great and noting features takes less time. 
4.      Look for dates on the structure. 
5.    Allow enough time to cover the site.  Usually we underestimated sites with one barn.
6.     Dress warm in winter, take water bottles in summer. 
7.     Oh yes, those owners….. after many, many sites, only one owner declined to permit the team to document his barn, but talked to us at length about it. 
8.     Bring information about your organization such as membership forms, flyers, notices and reference information to establish your intent and credentials.
9.      Send a gracious thank you letter from the barn survey team as soon as possible to each barn owner.  Include some details specific to the site.
10.  But most of important…..get out there and do it!!!!  As John Wayne said…we are burning daylight!

For more information contact Diana Borrusch of the Oakland Township Historical Society at 248-693-8660.