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South Bend Tribune

November 30, 2006

Buchanan barn rebuilt
Tribune Correspondent

Restoration effort seeks to preserve the past

   Sam and Peggy Stitt have a real partnership going:  35 years of marriage and a business they co-founded 33 years ago, one that has brought the Hesperia, Mich., couple to Buchanan temporarily to bring back to life a historical barn severely damaged by a 2004 tornado.
   The co-founder of Great Lakes Barn Preservation has shared that barn preservation passion for decades. 
   “Peggy and I are both in this together,” said Sam Stitt.  “It’s all we do; we’re really dedicated to restoring.
  For four or five days a week, they’ll pack up their travel trailer and “set up a camp on the job.”  (They have been known, though, to drive back to Hesperia if something important – like a grandchild’s school program – is happening at home.)
   On weekends, they’re often scouting out new job possibilities.            Both have residential builder’s licenses as does their son, Sam Stitt IV, the “third generation barnwright.”
   Peggy has been involved in every aspect of the business, from physical labor to accounting.
   So recently they were camping on Walton Road, working with a half dozen or so crew members on a restoration project.
   “This could be one of the oldest barns we’ve ever worked on,” Stitt said.
   The barn is owned by Bryan and Kathy Virgil, of St. Joseph.  They rent out the house; Kathy Virgil’s father farms the land.
   “Sam has done an excellent job; we feel fortunate to have found him,” said Kathy Virgil, who grew up on the Buchanan farm owned by her parents, Charles and Jeannette Spark.  
   Along with his own farm, Charles Stark had farmed the Walton Road land for some years before the Virgil’s purchased it 18 years ago.  He’s worked it ever since.
   The tornado left cedar shake roof scraps all over the yard:  a week’s worth of cleanup work.
   The barn decision took quite a bit longer.
   “We struggled with it economically,” she said.  “We could have knocked it down and put up a pole barn for the same amount of money.
   “But this is a wonderful old barn: no nails, all pegs.  And we’ve always liked old structures and preserving history.”
   Stitt agrees that the Virgil’s’ barn is “a unique barn, different from what we’ve worked on before, in that it’s so tall a 23 feet 9 inch side.”  It also looks different, with 16 windows, originally louvered and constructed on two levels at both 8 and 20 feet.
   “We’re not used to seeing that many windows or that type of window in a barn,: he said.  “They had louver/shutters just like you’d have in a house, even with the mechanism to manipulate them: it’s just totally different for a barn.”  He is, in fact, “unsure of their usefulness in a barn,” especially in that someone would have had to climb a ladder to open and shut them.  In the proper spirit of historic renovation, he and his crew will install two-foot and 28-inch windows in all the holes.  They’ll also use as much of the original wood as possible.
   Stitt points enthusiastically to mortise and tenon construction, to the major beams that form the main infrastructure.  The 8-inch-by-8-inch beams are hand-hewn, as evidenced by regular digs in the wood.  The smaller braces have straight marks, running perpendicular to the wood, indicating that a water-powered sawmill was used (the mill went up and down”).  It was a common choice until the 1850’s, when, he said, the newer, steam engine-run circular mills were introduced in Michigan.
   “That’s the way we date the barns,” he said.  He’s also used one beam with an exciting history all its own. “The tornado sent it flying about 100 feet and three feet into the ground,” he explained.  It’s now been restored to its rightful place.
   A member of the Traditional Timber Regulatory and Advisory Group (annually, members meet to share their knowledge on covered bridges, barns – any wood structures built before 1900) and the Timber Frame Guild, Stitt said he believes that there is growing national interest for these old historical structures.
   “It’s important to save them,” he said.
   Kathy Virgil is delighted that “Sam will restore (her old barn) to the way it probably was originally: We just felt as if we wanted to preserve a piece of history.”
   Stitt said he believes there are solid reasons for restoring historical barns.
   Michigan law, he notes, provides that “any agricultural structure built before 1936 can be restored with no tax increase.”
   Barns also are eminently usable, he believes – a completely functional “bit of Americana.”
   The bottom line, though, is that “the heartland was made up of these old structures.  When these are gone, they’ll be gone forever.
   Great Lakes Barn Preservation will both move and restore barns and can be reached at greatlakesbarn.com.

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