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Saving Maine's rural heritage, one barn at a time

Bills would fund restoration grants

SACO, Maine -- Others might have let the barn collapse, but Nicol Tifft saw something grand in the hand-hewn beams and simple genius of the architecture.

''The old barns are great," he said as he paced the barn loft at his home. ''They should be saved when it's possible."

Tifft, who spent about $60,000 rebuilding the failing structure, is part of a growing movement in the state to preserve and restore historic barns. It's a cause that has surged and faded, in tune with the overall economy.

Newcomers to the state made restoration fashionable in the 1990s as they bought up homes with empty barns, turning farm country into suburbs. Now the movement is stronger and more diverse, bringing together homeowners and historians, timber frame builders and preservation groups.

''In the last 10 years, certainly the awareness has grown," said Christi Mitchell, a historian with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. ''Barns are one of the most important markers we can use to look at our rural heritage."

More than 320 people have called or e-mailed Mitchell in the past two years inquiring about help with barn restoration.

But unlike some Midwest states, Maine does not have a central organization devoted to barn preservation. That could develop if various interests organize, said Roxanne Eflin, executive director of Maine Preservation in Portland.

''There is a great effort and a greater appreciation toward the cultural aspects of barns, beyond just the fact that they aren't made like that anymore," she said. Eflin also helped organize the first statewide conference on the issue two years ago in Damariscotta.

While there is no state money dedicated to the cause, several bills in the Legislature would fund a grant program for barn restoration projects if passed.

The move has pleased some, including Jim Leary, the owner of Saco's last operating dairy farm. He has seen dozens of barns raised in his lifetime and said he would not mind if more remained standing.

''Something about barns, especially old post and beam ones that were hewn out by hand, there is a spirit of cooperation about them," the 75-year-old said.

Leary admittedly remains a realist, and he knows the business of farming has turned most of the region's barns into unnecessary burdens. Still, when he looks at the old barn timbers, he forgets about the practical concerns.

''I've never seen two of these barns framed the same," he said. ''They all seem to have their own ideas."

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