Carpenters Cook and Harris bring old barns back to life.
Story and photos by KEN BECK
Across America, countless vintage barns totter on the brink of collapse. To those who love them, they’ve become an endangered species. For sure, their numbers are dwindling as there were 6.5 million barns that dotted the rural landscapes in 1920. Today less than half that number stand.
In Wilson County, Johnny Cook and Dalton Harris are doing everything in their power to preserve as many as time and their talent permit. They’re on pace to give facelifts to about 10 sagging barns a year.
“It’s all manual labor. We use jacks. The only mechanized thing we use is a nail gun. The rest is done by hand,” says Cook, 45. “The work just sucks. It’s nasty. It’s hot. Everything is heavy. Nothing is easy.
“The first thing we look at is the structural part to see if it is sound, the main braces. The thing with these old barns, when the roof starts to leak, it all goes down hill from there. The water is what gets them. You never know what you are going to get into until you start tearing them apart.”
In early spring the two have just bitten into an aged barn on Poplar Hill Road near Watertown. The 50-foot-by-30-foot structure consists of graying oak and poplar sides, while the support beams and rafters were carved from cedar, making them a nice home for burrowing bumblebees. On the back side where the barn doesn’t catch near as much sun, the boards grow green with algae. Jagged pieces of tin jut toward the sky near the edges of the roof.
“The structural part’s not bad except on the weathered end,” says Cook. “We may replace the poles with regular rafters. It’s an old pole barn, most likely used for animals.”
“It’s tiered up for tobacco,” Harris, 58, points out while puffing on a Camel.
“We’re pretty much gonna tear this stuff off,” Cook says, referring to the roof, a dangerous place to stand when a barn has endured a half a century of the elements.
“We’re not much for falling from the roof,” Harris comments, not joking.
The pick-up-driving, ball cap-wearing men launch into another day’s labors toiling with their hands and their wits. When they finish their job here in three or four weeks, they expect the crippled barn to look like it did the day it went up.
This granddaddy barn, representative of countless others across the county, state and nation, was once a baby. Way back when, 50, 75, maybe 100 years ago, white boards were hoisted high and hammered into place by calloused hands. Shiny strips of tin were tacked down on the roof, insuring a dry, safe place for the animals and hay in the stables and loft below. The hallway made a fine parking garage for green John Deeres or red Internationals.
In many cases, nobody remembers the names of the carpenters who tackled the task of building these barns of yesteryear. They were structures with character, and they symbolized the heart of the family farm. One thing is for sure, they don’t make them the way they used to. Today’s economic, prefabricated sheds are just not the same as those wood barns that boomers enjoyed playing in while visiting the grandparents’ farms of their youth.
For Cook, formerly a heavy equipment operator and truck driver, it was sentimentality that inspired this whole business of putting new life into old barns.
Born in Lebanon, the 1983 Friendship Christian School grad, grew up on a farm in Mt. Juliet. On that farm is the barn that his father and grandfather built in the 1940s.
Three generations of Cooks have labored long, sweat-filled hours in the oak and poplar barn that sits on a hill about 200 yards north of Highway 70, a mile-and-a-half west of Highway 109. The Cook barn measures 75 feet across the front and rises 54 feet to the peak. The loft has held as many as 3,500 bales of hay.
“I had sold my truck in December of 2008 when fuel got so high. So just by chance I wasn’t doing anything,” said Cook. “I looked at that barn every day. It’s just something that Daddy built, and I wasn’t going to let it go.
“I got tired of looking at it and knew what all would be involved. One man couldn’t do it. Dalt and I stayed in touch. He worked on my truck and did all my mechanical work. I knew he wasn’t doing anything, so I called him and asked if he would help. He said, ‘Sure, no problem.’”
Cook’s mom and dad were born Theodora Mitchell and Carroll Cook. Most of their friends and neighbors call them Teddy and Johnson. They raised two kids on their farm, Lexanne and Johnny.
Johnny recalls that his father came home from the Army and rejoined his father on their farm, but in the early 1950s, Johnson and some pals left for Chicago to work for Western Electric. About three months later, Johnson got a long distance phone call from home.
“Papa told him, ‘I need you to come down here and run the farm.’ Papa was about to lose everything. So Daddy left his friends in Chicago, and they built onto this barn, part of which had been built in 1943. They poured concrete for the block and built a dairy. Daddy farmed full time until I was 17. We grew tobacco and corn and had beef cattle. He raised a family doing that. I don’t see how he did that,” Johnny said.
“It’s just all sentimental to me. I think of everything that Daddy had to go through to raise us. It just blows me away, the way he gave us the life that we have,” said Cook, speaking for millions of sons and daughters raised by farmers. “He’s the best man on the planet as far as I am concerned.”
For Cook’s partner, 13 years his senior, there is not much about barns to be sentimental over. Dalton Harris has worked in, around and on top of barns since he was a lad.
“We used to farm 1,600 acres at one time with my grandfather and father,” said Harris, who grew up in the Bellwood community which straddles the Wilson and Smith County line. “We raised hogs, feeder pigs, beef cattle, sheep, milked cows by hand and grew corn and tobacco. We’d put up 15,000 to 20,000 square bales of hay.
A tornado wiped out four of our barns in 1975, and we had to go into the barn-building business right away because we had hay and tobacco to put up. We built two or three barns, and I repaired barns over the years. I enjoy doing the work.”
Harris toiled in other trades, such as tool-and-dye work, making tires for Bridgestone, driving long-haul freight for 15 years and running his own diesel-repair shop. “I’ve done a little bit of everything,” he says. “I’ve built a house, a rock chimney. I don’t like doing the same thing day in and day out. Johnny asked me to do that barn up there, and we started working on it.”
“When we started, we didn’t know what all we were going to get into,” said Cook about the rehabilitation of the family barn. “I just knew whatever it takes, we’re just going to do it, and do it right.
“We started tearing all the outside off of it. The framework was good, but when we started tearing the siding off the barn, we found that a lot of the main braces were starting to rot. As far as heavy, structural work, we didn’t have to do anything. We replaced a lot of the streamers that hold up the siding. We straightened it. It had started to lean to one side. We had to jack one side up a foot-and-a-half. We replaced three of the 20 main brace posts.”
Cook observed that as he and Harris were stripping the siding off the barn, nobody seemed to care, but when they began replacing the sides, drivers on Highway 70 began to pull off the road, walk up to the barn and make comments.
“People I didn’t know, four or five a day, would stop and say, ‘We see this thing every day, and are so glad somebody is going to fix it.’ There were people who were not from around here that wanted to come by and take photos. This got me to thinking, you don’t hear of people doing this type of work, and there are so many barns. We kept on working,” said Cook.
“It took us a month to restore the barn, and the last week, the people were coming in by the droves. It was hard for us to work. I still hear people who say, ‘We love what you did with that barn.’
“That makes me feel good, but I stood back and took photos, and I thought, ‘This is a good thing here. I’m really proud of it.’ So I got a two foot- by-two-foot sign printed up and stuck it out there on the highway in front of the barn and put C & H Barn Restoration on it and a phone number, and it has just taken off. People call all the time.”
It takes Harris and Cook about a month to six weeks to complete a job, depending on the size of the barn and the weather. In 2009, they restored six barns and built two new ones.
“We take a lot pride in what we do for anyone. We stay in really close contact with the people we work for,” Cook said. “We have had no complaints whatsoever on any of them.”
Last summer he and Harris tackled a historic wheat house for David and Gena Haney Sloan on their farm off Cooks Road between Lebanon and Mt. Juliet.
“This farm has been in the Burton family for 200 years. We call it ‘the home place,’ but it has a name, Rieffl and,” said Gena.
“My mother (Lora Burton Haney) grew up here. She knows the wheat house has been there her entire life, and she will be 93 this year. It was built by her father or grandfather and used for grain, corn, oats and wheat.
“My husband, David, and I, moved here in 2005 to help my mother take care of the farm. We decided it was the best outbuilding left. So we wanted to preserve this building,” Gena said.
“We had seen Johnny’s sign out when he was working on his family barn. We asked him to come take a look at it, and he restored it for us, and we are really happy with it. I think it is important to hold on to as much of that history as you can.
“They completely took the outside off. He recovered the exterior, put on new doors, rebuilt the two lean-to sheds and put a new tin roof on it,” she said of the structure which now is used as a tack and feed room for their miniature donkeys.
The barn rescue team of Harris and Cook seem to fit like hand and glove as they go about their chores.
"Dalton and I work pretty good together,” said Cook. “If I’ve got a problem, he knows about it. If he’s got a problem, I know about it. It’s just the two of us fooling around with this old stuff and doing it’s kind of dangerous.”
Harris can testify to the hazards of tearing down a decrepit barn and resurrecting it.
“I fell three weeks ago. I was 20 feet off the ground and had a ladder leaned against a piece of two by six. Termites had started eating that post. The ladder dropped out from under me. Luckily, I only fell about four-and-a-half feet with a five-pound hammer in my hand, but I caught myself. Then I stepped off a scaffolding last summer and stepped on the ground and broke my ankle. You just have to learn to be careful,” Harris said.
Johnny Cook, his parents and sister are pleased that their barn today gleams in the sunlight like a tarnished family heirloom that has been cleaned and polished.
“It looks nice. I was proud to see it get straightened back up,” said Johnson Cook, 75. “That barn was here when my daddy was here. “Put many a hard day’s work up here. It started early too and didn’t get through till late, milking 40 to 45 cows. Good gosh, putting hay in there. Good memories,” said Mr. Cook, a former Wilson County Commissioner who left farming in the early 1980s to serve as a Tennessee state trooper for 22 years.
Today, his son, Johnny, has plans for their new-old barn on the hill: “I’m gonna get some beef cattle and use this barn for what it was meant for.”
In the meantime, he and Harris will plunge ahead with the “barn-again” mission they began 18 months ago.
“I’ve seen so many barns around go to the ground. The roofs are so steep, they can’t find anybody to go up and nail ’em down. Without roofs, the water rots the rafters and posts. They’re gone if you don’t do something to ’em. People just let ’em go,” says Harris.
“I hate to see these old barns fall down. The countryside’s full of ’em, but if you just drive around and look, you see some of ’em could be fixed, but they put it off. Next thing you know it’s gone,” the hardworking man stated.
“A lot of these old barns would be on the ground in the next few years if we didn’t work on ’em. We straighten them and put ’em back up. Maybe they will last another 50 years.”
C & H Barn Restoration
Johnny Cook and Dalton Harris specialize in the respectful restoration and repair of historic Tennessee barns.
(615) 519-4509 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ken Beck can be contacted at KBTAG@aol.com.