Wisconsin’s Culture - Barn Raising

“A celebration of wood on a massive scale”

I don't know about the story-teller, but this is a great story. It is a story of love for the historic timber used in old Wisconsin barns and the marriage of one about to be destroyed with one being renovated. 


I met a fellow named Craig "Rooster" Roost through Facebook. He introduced me to a barn-raising project he was leading near Edgerton on property owned by Dan and Connie Bussey. I would later learn that it was a timber-frame barn disassembly, relocation, reassembly, barn-joining and renovation project, a real handful to be sure.


Rooster is from Ft. Atkinson in Jefferson County.  Edgerton is a city that is in both Dane and Rock Counties. While the city center is in Rock County, the city boundary extends into Dane County just to the north. The Bussey property on which we will focus is in Dane County. You'll learn later that Dan Bussey is respected worldwide for his knowledge of the apple orchard. His orchard is in the Rock County sector of Edgerton. All these places are in close proximity to each other with the counties butting up against each other. 


This was a tough story for me. The biggest challenge was I had to learn something of timber-frame building, especially the vocabulary. It is fast becoming a lost art.


Craig Roost was about 40 and from Ft. Atkinson, Jefferson County, where he still lives. Among other things, he is a timber-frame carpenter. He is self-employed, and runs CRW Timber-framing & Barn Restoration LLC.    


He has a great love for restoring old barns. Back in 2007, he told the Wisconsin State Journal this:


"I want to give honor to what they did back then by trying to save these structures. Especially when we live in Wisconsin, unless you're a transplant, everyone in this state is related to the farm. We were an agricultural state for 100 years." 


He fears that as farms in the state break up, many old barns will become "an obsolete tool." 


A fellow named Joseph Truini, writing "A house with no nails: Building a timber-frame house" for Popular Mechanics, put it this way:


"A timber-frame home is a celebration of wood on a massive scale. Tall posts grow from the floor and connect overhead in a soaring network of beams, rafters and braces joined with glovelike precision. And the entire structure — which can last for centuries — remains exposed as evidence of the craftsman's skill." 


Timber-framing was new to me, so I used some of Truini's article and a few others in an attempt to at least employ the right vocabulary. Doing so makes it more fun. 


Craig Rooster tipped me that he and his volunteers would be working on the project on September 13, 2009, so I drove down there and took my own photography, which I wish to display and, to the extent I can, explain what is happening. A city boy, this was a delight to watch. The key for me was to stay out of the way, and still try to understand what was happening. 

The location of the barn raising is 490 Craig Rd., Edgerton, just to the east of where Hwy 73 crosses Craig Road not far from I-39. This is a color aerial by MapQuest, probably taken in summer. As you'll see in a moment, I was there as fall approached and crops lent a different scene of color.

This is the home on the property, the view from the front. A beauty. 

And from the rear. Still a beauty!


When I visited, Dave and Connie Bussey had recently purchased the property. While I was there, the family from whom they bought it was still living there, in the final throes of moving out. In fact, the lady you see in this photo was the lady from whom they bought the property. She was relaxing, deservedly so. 

While my focus was on the barn raising, I was awed by the sensational surrounding area on a beautiful late summer day. This is the view to the west from the Bussey farm.

This is a view of the farm's grounds looking to the north.


Dan and Rooster had already begun their major barn-raising effort on the property on August 22, 2009. 


So let's now down to business on the efforts I observed on September 13. 

This is the original red barn that already existed on the property. You can see just to the right that parts of the disassembled barn had already been reassembled and tied to the red barn. Pretend that's not there for the moment. 


Dan Bussey wanted to renovate the existing red barn and bring her up to snuff, but he knew he would need much more room to store his equipment. By chance, he met up with Craig Rooster and they slowly but surely built a concept where Rooster would find an old barn not in use that could be disassembled, moved to this address, reassembled and attached to the red barn, providing the Busseys the added space they wanted.


I should say here that timber framing houses are making a comeback in the US today. As you would expect, we have a lot of new technologies to make the job easier, faster, and less expensive. It is worth pointing out that most of these homes use new wood subjected to computer aided design (CAD) and computer numerical control (CNC) manufacturing. The components are manufactured in the plant and readied for assembly at the site. Read Truini's article to see what I mean. 


Not so with the Bussey-Roost project. These men are using actual timber from a 19th century barn and to the extent they can, they are putting the pieces back together where they were when they disassembled the barn, and they are working to put the pieces back together exactly as they were originally structured. This is a huge difference from the modern timber framing industry. Furthermore, from what I have seen, Rooster's team used horses and various pulley, strapping and man-held poker combinations to lift sections into place, as opposed to hydraulic cranes. These are things that make their work historic. By the way, I didn't search hard, but I never saw a nail driven.


A few notes on Dan. He is an Edgerton-area businessman, the owner of Bussey Dishwasher Services. But he has a wide-ranging reputation for his knowledge of apples. He has turned out to be a darn good apple farmer, internationally known and respected. He is an orchardist and cider maker who has operated an orchard for about 30 years. He has a four-acre orchard near Edgerton and has grown more than 250 varieties of apples, which he refers to as "heirloom apples." He has spent a couple decades studying apples and has written a book on 14,000 named varieties of apples, due for publication in 2010. Many believe the book will become an international authority on apples. He has done considerable lecturing and teaching on the subject. Of himself, he says:


"I'm basically a shy person but have passionate interests in life that will leave that no second guesses about how I feel about them." 


He also owns the Albion Prairie Carriage Museum at 691 CH A in Edgerton. It has 70 vehicles in the collection, funeral vehicles, commercial pieces, and sleighs. Many vehicles in the collection are in original (as found) condition, some need complete restoration and others will probably never be restored.


Okay, back to business.

Rooster found a barn dating back to 1888 that stood in the way of a by-pass under construction near Jefferson. This barn would probably have been destroyed. 


Recall the existing red barn at Dan Bussey’s farm had a flat wall. This barn also has such a wall, perfect for being married to the red barn.


Rooster closed the deal on that and began taking it apart, piece by piece, labeling each.

This is a photo of the frame of this old barn. I'd like you to imagine the near side marrying up to the side of the red barn and pushing out perpendicular to the red barn. Each one of these sections had to be disassembled and moved to the Bussey site, then set up again and joined to the red barn.

Here you can see that Rooster and his team have started to disassemble the old barn, first removing the rafters. Pay attention to the four walls. As I understand Rooster's photography and text, he and his volunteers raised six sections of the old barn on the first bent occurring on August 22, 2009. Timber framers use the word "bent" to mean a section of frame that includes two exterior posts and a horizontal tie beam. This means he had disassembled the entire old barn, and moved the six sections to the Bussey property, and put them up again. By six sections, I mean the six heavy frames that form the outside of the barn --- you can count them on the near side, front to back, six frames.

This is a nice look at the beautiful timber in this old barn It would have been a shame to see this timber destroyed and lost. Rooster and Dan Bussey would make sure it was put to good use.

One of the highlights of their effort was to raise the colors above the barn early on. The colors were flying proudly the day I visited.

This is what the project looked like when I arrived on September 13. You can count the six sections up and braced together and all joined to the red barn. Watch Rooster's videos, and you'll see how they used horses and a combination of pulleys to help raise each section. My understanding is the sections were numbered one through six from left to right.

There is a lot in this photo to notice. You will recall that the old barn originally stood on a stone wall foundation. Here, you can see that they poured concrete bases on which the vertical posts could stand. This vertical post is known as a bent post. To rookies like me, the vocabulary is new, and perhaps new to you as well, so recall that a bent is a section of frame that includes two exterior posts and a horizontal tie beam.


In looking at that bent post, you can see how it is spliced together. That is because the frame "in the day" required timber longer than might have been available at the time. A scarf joint is one that connects two pieces of timber in which the ends are beveled or notched so that they fit over or into each other. A lap joint is a joint made with two pieces of timber by halving the thickness of each member at the joint and fitting them together. It looks to me like this post has a lap joint, commonly used where continual support is required where the post is bearing heavy weight on a foundation, which is the situation here. Scarf joints are used higher in the structure.


I want to zoom in on this photo a little.

The red arrows show how the bent post is spliced, using the lap joint, giving it a great deal of strength. The lower white arrow shows a "notch" in the bent post. The professionals call this "notch" a mortise. A mortise is a hole or recess cut into a part, designed to receive a corresponding projection, called a tenon, on another part so as to join or lock the parts together. This particular mortise awaits a girt's tenon, or perhaps a knee brace. A girt is a horizontal structural member in a framed wall, such as has been connected and shown by the top white arrow. They resist lateral loads from wind and support wall materials. Knee braces are used to strengthen the connection between post and girt. 


To put some of this together in your minds using the right vocabulary. You will recall we defined a bent as a section of framing that includes two exterior posts and a horizontal tie beam. Bents are connected by girts between bents, and top plates connected  by tenons on top of the bent posts. 


So you can see we're deep into the vocabulary of timber framing --- vertical posts, horizontal girts, mortises, tenons, top plates and knee braces.

This photo is of a different area, but shows the mechanical beauty of all this before your eyes. In the gee whiz category, I saw no nails employed while I was there.

The mission during the time I was there was to get a horizontal girt in place all the way on top of the north side (near side) of the old barn. This girt is known as the top plate. Please note how the two vertical posts in the photo have been shaped topside --- that piece of wood projecting upward is called the tenon. Also please note the upright piece of wood with a pulley system attached --- no hydraulic lifting here, just smart pulleys and dedicated guys working them.


Let's get a closer look at the tenon, the mortise and the post.

The top plate girt they had to raise was one each heavy piece of timber, and they employed multiple pulley systems with human steering to raise the girt.

The top-plate girt is on its way up, hoisted bay pulleys.  Rooster called a brief timeout as he double checked his straps holding the posts in place. 


I want to highlight the guy standing there on the ground. You see he has a pole. He's using that pole to steady the girt while Rooster works with the straps. Let's take a closer look. There were actually two guys with two poles, one on each end of the girt.


That pole has long been known as a Pike pole. Pike poles were used a lot in the day when men worked with the raw logs coming down the rivers of the nation to the saw mills. You might recall seeing men standing on the logs carrying these poles directing other logs in the direction they wanted. They no doubt also used them for balancing themselves on the logs. A Pike pole comes in a lot of varieties, the most popular being one that simply pokes like this, with others having various designs of hooks on them. This particular Pike pole looks home-made and in this instance is used to steady the girt on its way up. I saw a lot of the volunteers using these. It's important to remember that these girts are huge pieces of timber, and they are very heavy. If they start flopping around on their way up, they can cause a lot of damage to the main and supporting structures. So men employing these Pike poles kept the girts steady.


Rooster is standing on top to the right and had done quite a bit of preparatory work prior to the effort to raise the top plate girt. The yellow arrow points to that girt as it heads upward. They used a combination of pulleys and men with Pike poles to raise and guide it. They raised it very slowly, often with someone shouting to stop when he noticed something he didn't like. Rooster is using a yellow strap to hold the posts where he wants them. The girt is going to have to go above the posts, and then be positioned so it slides over the tenons that will fit into the mortises in the girt. This is tricky business and demands considerable patience. Remember, this girt will have to join with six tenons on six posts.


This is a nice closeup of Rooster giving directions as the girt, marked by the yellow arrow, keeps its upward track. Again notice the yellow straps tied to the posts to help hold them in place.


At the other end, the west end, you see one of the volunteers working one part of the pulley system to raise the girt. As an aside, that beautiful blue sky is not photoshopped --- that's the real McCoy! 


Rooster has one end of the girt and is coordinating with the others at the other end, close to the red barn, about its placement. Believe me, there's a lot of work yet to do to get this baby in place and secured.


Here you see how they are working to line up the mortise in the girt with the tenon on top of the post. They are tough to see, but there a few other mortises to the right which I'll address later. I want to show you a bit closer where the girt's mortise is to meet the post's tenon. 


The dark rectangle on the girt is the mortise. you can see that tenon is missing it by just a bit, but enough to stop the "marriage." 

I'll remind you again that they've got six posts and tenons that are going to have to marry with six mortises in the single girt. Here you see a volunteer at the other end working his pulley trying to nudge that girt over to the tenon on the post.


Rooster decided he's going to need the heavy duty wooden mallet (yellow arrow) to help work the marriage. So a volunteer hands it to him. Now we’re cookin’.


You have to be there to get the real feel for it, but there was a lot of choreography going on here. This volunteer has been asked to tap this bent post a bit to help the guys topside to fit its tenon into the girt's mortise. I can assure you he tapped carefully and received a great deal of instruction from above --- great coordination, no arguing, no egos here --- everyone knows how careful they must be and how important it is to work as a team.


There you go, she's in there. The top plate girts is setting in place. They had to do this for all six bent posts, and they did it. I have to tell you I was tense just putting this page together and inserting the photos and reading the text, step by step!


But the job is not yet finished. Let me return to an earlier photo where I mentioned there were other mortises in the girt that were not destined to fit with the tenons on the six posts.


Those "extra" mortises were for the knee braces to slide in. 


The knee braces were installed "one-by-each" for the length of the girt. The knee braces strengthen the connection of the girts to the posts. Note Rooster has the “hammer!”


By my reckoning, the process to raise the girt and get her installed took about an hour of hard, careful work, a lot of tender-loving-care, and some strategic but sensitive pounding of the big mallet. Not bad, eh?


With that horizontal girt firmly in place, the team calls time out for lunch in a marvelous setting.


With a terrific learning experience under my belt, off I went, back to Wausau, relishing what I saw, enjoying a spectacular drive home, and looking forward to the next major operation.


I tried to stay out of everyone's way, so I did not meet everyone and get their names. I met Craig Roost, Dan and Connie Bussey, Alistar Carr, Dan's brother-in-law, Jim Bussey, Dans' father, and Joel Winn, Dan's friend and associate in re-enacting history through an organizational movement known as the "Buckskinner Rendezvous," the subject of another article later.

__________


I was in the area in May 2011 so took a little detour to see what the finished product looked like. Unfortunately the family was not home so I could not get inside. I’ll try that again later. You can see where the rebuilt barn looks pretty well done, but there’s still work to do on the old red barn that came with this property.