It sounded like a windfall. “Free for dismantle: 4 old barns. Stevi.” Right there in the classified section of the Missoulian. We were looking for an apartment, but being both poor and cheap, we also checked the “Give-Away” section often. Craig called the number, and a few hours later we were headed south on Route 93, rolling through Montana’s heat-scorched Bitterroot Valley towards Stevensville.
There was a precedent, at least. We had spent the previous few months working on a ranch outside of Turah, a little place tucked away by the river. In our spare moments we poked around the reaches of the property and over the course of the summer had salvaged a small stack of old, useable lumber from burn piles and scrap heaps. Remarkably, it wasn’t just two-by-fours from Home Depot, but burly, weathered three-by-tens or square beams from old structures, cast by the wayside years ago. We weren’t really interested in the weathered barn wood aesthetic, necessarily, but we did need a kitchen table, and maybe a couple of bookshelves. Both woodworkers, it seemed silly not to build our furniture ourselves, and free materials were hard to pass up. We worked on our projects in the evenings in the old pole barn, the moon hanging over the slough and the ranch dogs, Louie and Maggie and Kriegler, sleeping in the sawdust.
Pretty soon we had a dining table, shelves, a coffee table, and a desk, but while our enthusiasm had never been higher, our supply of free wood was used up. Which is why, on that August day, the ad seemed like it was written just for us. We liked a good challenge; we liked working outdoors. Besides, we said, just think of all that barn wood. We would never use all of it and figured we could sell the extra to contractors or builders to use in the nouveau-rustic homes sprouting up all over the valley. “Rich people love this stuff!” was a phrase we’d come to repeat many times over the course of the project, during the cold snaps or when eyeing our dwindling funds.
Howard Hash is a good old boy, but the world’s getting the better of him. He’s the new ranch manager of what once was the OXO Hereford Ranch, a 1,000-acre spread along the Bitterroot River, the home of the barns. The cattle were sold off long ago, and now the well-intentioned absentee landowner hopes to turn the area into a bird sanctuary. I think it’s a great idea, but to Howard, it’s a whole bunch of new-agey hippy nonsense. What good is it to make habitat for the goddamn birds, he says, if you can’t then go out and shoot them? He grumbles about this between hunting forays to the eastern plains of the state and training sessions with his bird dogs. (“The best bird dog you’ll ever find is a wire-haired griffon,” he shares in his unplaceable nasal drawl, “wire” coming out like “wahr.” He then launches into the longest stream of words I’ve heard from him, a dissertation on the griffon’s ancestry that goes on for almost a minute.)
Howard meets us at the property on that hot August day, but he’s late, so we spend a few minutes looking around. Three broad old barns stand in an open field, white paint peeling in the sun. A three story stock barn, a hay barn, and a big equipment barn nestle nearby one another, and at a bit of a remove sits a small shed, which turns out to be a bunkhouse of sorts with a tiny woodstove and one whole end of the place walled off and insulated for cold storage. Everything is in varying stages of disrepair, but all the structures are still sound and certainly still useable. We mull over why they need to be torn down while we stand in the dry field, grasshoppers ratcheting around our feet.
Eventually we see a white minivan coming up the dirt road. Can this be the manager? In a minivan? Nah. . . . But it is, and we will learn that Howard, for unknown reasons, owns a whole fleet of identical, aged white minivans. Utterly incongruous with his image, they seem to be one more thing that he bears up against, one more sign of the world slowly going to pieces. He steps out into the sun, slowly. Slight and short, barely taller than me, his age is hard to pinpoint, somewhere between 55 and 75. His eyes are small and perpetually squinting, his face red and almost boyish, but under his ball cap his hair is thinning, and he moves with age in his joints. He sizes us up.
“Wellll. . . .” he says, an upward-inflected commentary that we come to discover is his default in just about any situation. It’s not a quite question and always ends in a sigh. I imagine he is thinking, “What in the hell are these two wet-behind-the-ears, shiftless youngsters doing here? Waste of my goddamn time.” I find out later that this was, nearly verbatim, exactly what he was thinking.
I know what he sees when he looks at us: two kids in shorts and flip-flops, although Craig is 32 and I’m 26. We’re both wearing sporty sunglasses and the accompanying inverse raccoon-face tans. Really, there’s nothing that would distinguish us from anyone else in Missoula, Montana’s liberal hub that in the summer is a hotbed of leisure and laziness, scantily clad folks floating on inner tubes through downtown on the Clark Fork River and drinking away the long daylight. Our little town is the bane of the rest of the state’s conservative existence.
And now here we are, standing before Howard Hash in his sensible boots and his Wranglers, and we’re racking our brains for ways to convince him we’re not what we look like, trying to hide our shabby footwear in the weeds. Ranchers don’t approve of sandals. Next time Craig meets with him, he’ll be sure to wear his White’s, boots that in the West symbolize manliness and competence.
For the moment, though, he’s studying us through heavy-lidded eyes. If he looks beyond our attire, he’ll see in Craig a tall, broad, capable-looking guy with big hands and forearms, and a quick smile. He appears to be someone who can get a job done. Me, however, I’m not sure Howard sees much promise in me. Five foot three, petite, with a long brown braid snaking down to my waist and a young face, I don’t evoke thoughts of manual labor. I feel compelled to roll up my t-shirt sleeve and flex my arm—“See? Look at that bicep!”—but I resist the urge.
At the outset, we may look like we’re not worth the gamble. He should clearly give the job to someone else. But what he can’t see are all the ways we are prepared to handle this project: We’ve got strong, inherited work ethics—Craig from the steelworkers of Western Pennsylvania and me from hard-nosed Yankee stock of New England. Whatever job either of us begins, we finish it, and we do it well. We’ve both worked hard labor, and though my experience has mostly just been odd jobs and landscaping, Craig worked for years as a hotshot firefighter, one of the most physically demanding jobs imaginable. We’re smart enough, both working on our master’s degrees at the university in town. And most importantly, we’re newly in love; the world awaits and we can accomplish anything.
Granted, I have my doubts about the project. Craig and I had begun to discuss plans to move after we finished our graduate degrees in December, closer to our families and potential jobs back east, and I can see that embarking on this barn adventure might throw a wrench in those plans. But, enamored as I am, I hold my tongue. Craig’s enthusiasm is captivating, and, even though I’m concerned about our other plans, I’m excited about the magnitude of the challenge as well. I figure we can always move east a little later, after the barns are finished. What are a few months? And besides, as we stand there under the high summer sun, I’m aware of how we appear, and I’m certain Howard will give the job to someone else, someone bigger and burlier and wearing more denim.
Despite any misgivings, Howard shows us around the 100-year-old barns, laconically pointing and gesturing. The property owner wants the barns gone, so the field can return to bird habitat. Howard says he was told just to burn the buildings down but thought someone might want to try their hand at saving some of it. Somehow we convince him that we are the right people for the job. We all shake hands, and as he climbs back into his van he shakes his head. “Wellll. . . .”
He drives off and leaves us there in the dust and the heat with the barns and the grasshoppers.
We will come to know Howard well over the next several months, and in fact, he will hire Craig on to work for him the next summer, logging and thinning the property. It doesn’t take too long for him to come to the conclusion that we are not quite the bumbling newbies he had originally assumed, although he still, I think, considers us pansies in some regards: He can’t figure out, for example, why it’s such a big deal that we’re absolutely sure the power to the barns is disconnected before we cut through the lines. “Well, I don’t know,” he says when we ask him about it. “I just figure it was turned off a long time ago.” He seems to think that calling the power company out to check is a lot of fuss.
But he warms to us nonetheless and stops by occasionally while we’re working just to watch or complain about the woman who owns the place. I get a kick out of his views on the fairer sex; he seems to get along alright with his wife, who does the books for the ranch and who seems to be somewhat of a mystery to him. On the other hand, he loves coming across situations or problems on the property that will irk the landowner. When a whole section of the riverbank washes away in a spring flood, he looks at it and says, “Wellll. . . That’ll make her piss down her leg!” and cackles. When a lot of the newly planted native shrubs die off, he merely comments, “Yep, that’ll really blow her skirt back.” But on the other hand, he seems to put some stock in my work and my attitude, and refers to me on occasion as “Boss Lady” with something resembling fondness.
He is a curmudgeon, but we get to know him in bits and pieces as he talks, always staring off into the middle distance. He came from Virginia. He’s a pilot and owns several small planes as well as pieces of several more, which he intends to cobble together into patchwork flying machines. He owns mules and has a big kennel full of dogs. He was a wrestler, a good one, and thus has bad shoulders. One day he tears the tendons in both of his shoulders while sinking fence posts, and both require surgery and long-term rehabilitation. “This,” he tells us often, “is just a goddamn piss off.”
Eventually, we get started on the project after two months of legal logistics: if we fall and break our necks, whose fault is it, and more importantly, who pays for it; who deals with the cement foundations; what’s the contract going to say and who’s going to write it. Together we agree that the whole thing will be done by the end of March, giving us just over five months. Though we’re both finishing graduate school and I’m working a part-time job, we figure five months is plenty.
The first day of real demolition is bright and cold. Unsure where to start and a little giddy at the enormity of the project, we wander, getting acquainted with “our” barns. We point out certain boards that strike our fancy, because of the grain pattern, or the sheer bulk of them, or because they have brands burned into them. “Just think,” Craig marvels, “by the end of this we will have touched each one of these boards. We will have held all of them in our hands; we will know them all.”
We have decided to complete the project all by hand, no power tools except maybe a chainsaw if it becomes necessary. We will end up making one major concession to this vow, but it’s a spectacular and utterly efficient rule-breaking, so we think it’s worth it.
We pull a board here, a couple there, and start mapping out a plan of attack. We’ve never done this before; I’ve built barns, but they were much smaller than these, and I’ve never done the process in reverse. We make a list of things that need to be addressed quickly; we need buckets for nails, we need to determine if we’re dealing with lead paint (which would render the wood unsellable), and the dozen thousand-pound industrial sacks of “organic fertilizer” (turkey crap) stashed in the hay barn need to be moved by some kind of machinery we don’t have. (Several months later, we will have the barn half dismantled around them before Howard finally trundles over in his skid-steer to take the reeking obstacles away.)
Eventually we embark on the project in earnest by tackling the loft in the main barn, scooping out the evidence of generations of pigeons, feathers and nesting material and the bones of the unlucky or old. I am fascinated by the smallness, the perfect roundness of the birds’ skulls as I uncover them, the startlingly large eye-sockets and incongruous beaks. The grime piles up on the ground beneath the loft doors, where eventually it will be trampled down and then freeze. Knapweed will bloom ebulliently from these patches in the spring.
There is a photo of the two of us on that first day, standing in the doorway of the hay barn. Craig is holding a broad pine board, and there are several more leaning against the wall behind us. We are eating apples and looking smug in sweatshirts that read “Treeline Timber Salvage.” (One of the permissible criteria on the application for an independent contractor’s license in the state of Montana is to submit a receipt for apparel printed with the contractor’s logo. We made up a name, got some shirts printed, and got ourselves a contractor’s license. Simple.) Surrounded by the doorway of the massive barn, with winter coming on, we look surprisingly optimistic.
Straight through until the end of March, we spend every weekend and spare weekday moment there. We set the alarm for 6:00 on Saturdays, and while I groan and cover my head with a pillow, Craig goes and puts the coffee on. I wear the same pair of Carhartts each day and rotate through pairs of long underwear. Layers of thermals and sweatshirts, everything is filthy, everything smells like dust and turkey poo.
But we make progress, and we learn fast. The months go by, and slowly piles of boards appear neatly stacked in the field, while the skeletons of the barns stand stark against the sky. The process is one endless blur of bluebird days and snowstorms, packed down snow and hard-frozen ground, and endless boards coated in 100 years of dirt.
Throughout the process, I would occasionally find myself stalled in my work, looking out over the valley from one of the roofs, or staring off towards McCalla Creek with a board in my hands. We weren’t sure when the barns were built, exactly, but sometime around the turn of the century. There weren’t any square nails, so we figure it must’ve been around 1910 or shortly thereafter. I couldn’t shake the sense of history there, the notion that each board was a witness to the past of the place.
The barn was built almost entirely of pine, probably local Ponderosa, most likely cut and milled right there on the property. Some of the boards were sixteen or twenty inches wide and clearly were cut from grand old trees. I imagine those trees when they still stood, towering over the valley. They weathered seasonal fires and east winds in the winter. They would have stood above encampments of Flathead Indians, overwintering in the sheltered valley where their horses could find enough forage for the lean months. They would have seen the migration of various native bands through the mountains, headed from the Columbia Plateau out to the Plains, going to buffalo. The arrival of Jesuits, with their black robes and new notions. St. Mary’s Mission, now encircled by the town of Stevensville, was the first white establishment in Montana, built in 1841. The site of the barns was less than a mile as the crow flies from the Mission. I imagined the trees watching the first telegraph lines strung down the valley, the smoke from the first trains curling up across the river. Hundreds of years old, the trees must have watched Chief Charlo lead his people north, out of the valley, through a world that was rapidly changing.
Eventually, the Ponderosas were cut, sawed to length and shaped into buildings. Cattle came and went; horses were replaced by machines. Ranch hands slept in the bunkhouse and then moved on. McCalla Creek kept flowing, the woodchucks kept raising families under the floor, and the pigeons established an empire. And now, there we were, painstakingly unbuilding the past so that it could continue.
If you want to take down some barns, there are a few things you’ll have to learn. First, get a shovel for the pigeon shit. Then, wait until winter. Pigeon shit doesn’t smell nearly as bad after it freezes, and neither do the dead woodchucks under the floorboards. Just as important, the flies are all asleep. There are few things as satisfying as pulling down a wall board, finding the backside caked with hibernating flies, and killing them. It’s sweet revenge for all the insects of summer.
Get a hard hat and several pairs of good work gloves, not the chintzy kind. Find a tool belt that suits your needs and a hammer that suits your personality. You must have a reliable pair of boots. You’ll buy all kinds of crowbars and prybars, and you still won’t have exactly the right tool for every job. We named our crowbars the diplomat, the ambassador, and the plenipotentiary and relied on their skills of leverage and persuasion. You’ll learn to carry a small block of wood, a few inches across, to give you better leverage against stubborn nails. Even though it seems impossible, you will figure out eventually how to back a loaded trailer into a tight space.
You will carefully corral and collect hundreds of pounds of nails in big plastic buckets. We racked our brains up until the moment we brought them to the recycling drop-off and couldn’t come up with a good use for thousands of bent nails. We even talked to the blacksmith up the road to see if he could smelt them and make them into knives. Not enough carbon, he told us. Toss ’em.
The best way to keep your fingers from freezing is to use them. For the days when even that doesn’t work, you’ll want a burn barrel. The best way to warm up after all day in the cold is a shower and stew. The best way is not getting so close to the woodstove that you accidentally back into it and bear a scar across your left butt cheek to this day.
You’ll discover that shingles are perhaps the world’s most unwieldy building material but that there are few more satisfying activities than scraping shingles off a roof side-by-side with someone you love. When your friend shows up with beer at the end of the day, it’s a nice treat. When your friend shows up with beer and a shingle shovel and an offer to help, early in the day, it’s a beautiful thing.
Some of the most interesting moments will be when the voices of another time show up before you. One board was penciled with a request to Stop the war in ’Nam. Another had the name Verne Hames gouged into it long ago. We found the old OXO Hereford sign hidden in a pile of junk, a placid-looking cow painted on it. A stash of old glass apothecary bottles emerged from a dark corner of the hay barn with directions for dosing cows still legible on the labels. The tops of old tin cans covered the knotholes in the walls.
You’ll listen to a lot of Rolling Stones and public radio. You might develop a taste for energy drinks and Combos if there’s a gas station up the road. If you have to drive past a bakery on the way to the job site, then you’ll probably acquire a passion for cheddar-jalapeno scones for breakfast. On the gorgeous days, when the sun breaks through the clouds, there’s a rainbow perched improbably astride the equipment barn, and a herd of elk grazes at a safe distance, you’ll think that you could do this stuff forever. When it’s cold and wet and your shoulders ache from wielding a prybar overhead all day, you’ll yell at each other and wonder whose stupid idea this stupid project was in the first place.
On the bad days, I hated the whole thing. It wasn’t the physical discomforts or the long hours; I don’t generally mind that sort of thing. But on those days, when we argued and I stormed off with my crowbar to vent my frustration on some unsuspecting rafter, I knew exactly why the cold seemed colder, the work harder, and the disagreements more dire.
I was the type that needed to plan. I had put more stock in our “going back east” plan than I had realized, and I regretted holding my tongue back on that sunny summer day. Howard trusted us enough to give us the job, and I suddenly found myself bundled up in the middle of a Montana winter, prying cold metal out of cold wood, 2,500 miles away from my family and friends. I was homesick, but more than anything, I didn’t have a plan. Would we go back east after we finished the demolition? I had no idea, but I had a hunch it wouldn’t be a priority for Craig. He didn’t miss his family and his home-place the same way I did, and we had a steadily growing pile of pine that tied us to this spot in a very real way. I felt untethered on those bad days and wondered if I had enough perspective, if I was doing the right thing by standing side by side with this man I had only known for a year, while so much of what I cared about was so far away. And all because of a couple of goddamn barns. I blamed Craig and myself, but most of all the barns for derailing my intentions. On the bad days, pulling boards felt like pulling apart the safe and comfortable life I had imagined, piece by piece.
Years later, we still have piles of wood everywhere—in the garage, in storage, in our friend’s field—and I still don’t have a plan. I don’t mind as much now, although there are still days when I want nothing more than to be back in the Northeast woods, among family and ancestors. Events have conspired to keep us here though, and I haven’t fought them. Along with calluses and splinters, the barns gave me a chance to take stock, forced me to slow down, to acknowledge the malleability of the future. All that history around me said don’t worry, don’t make plans. You cannot predict, and you will only be disappointed. Whatever comes next will get here, eventually.
By late December, we have the shell peeled off the hay barn, and just the frame remains with a few stubborn bits of board hanging dejectedly in the wind. After days of planning and much drawing of diagrams, we have the place rigged for destruction. Steel cable threads through the building, hitched every so often to the joists and out about a hundred feet to our friend Josh’s truck. This is our major breach of contract with ourselves: having pulled everything salvageable off the outside and removed as much of the frame as possible without endangering ourselves, all by hand, we’re going to topple everything that remains with this big old Ford.
While I prop plywood over the truck’s windshield (we’ll be pulling in reverse, and if the cables snap, they’ll smash the glass), Josh and Craig blitz through the barn with chainsaws, putting face cuts in all of the supporting posts. Then, while we stand clear, Craig throws the truck into gear and slowly backs up. The wheels spin even though we’ve put on chains and mud flies. From where we’re standing, we can see the frame lean forward and settle back at each tentative attempt. Finally Josh hollers over “Give it the onion!” which, in so many words, means, “Floor it!” Craig does. The engine whines, the snow chains break on the tires, but slowly, the barn tilts, pitches forward, and then all at once, buckles like a huge animal going down on its knees. It settles exactly how we had planned, and the three of us clamber over the pile whooping and hollering, “Holy shit! I can’t believe it worked! Would you look at that? It worked!”
We will eventually do the same with the stock barn, on a numbingly cold day in January. Our friend Johnny offers the use of his giant diesel Dodge, and the behemoth of a building comes down in a cloud of dust and snow. The bunkhouse and the equipment barn will follow close on their heels, and with a few days to spare, the project is finished by the end of March.
Every now and then we drive by the property and look at the space: just a big meadow now with the footprints of the barns slowly filling in—mostly with invasive weeds, but also seeded native grasses, trying to take. Howard has retired, and I always imagine him flying one of his small planes over the eastern reaches of Montana, a wire-haired griffon riding in the co-pilot’s seat, going to hunt birds.
We’ve stored a lot of the wood down on Josh’s property, a little twenty-acre spread off the road where no one will care if boards clutter up the view. We told him it would just be temporary, just for a few months, tops, because all those rich people and those contractors would be buying it all up. Turns out, rich people do love the stuff, but their contractors like to buy from wholesalers, not two-bit barn busters like us. We shopped it around for a while and sold a few thousand board-feet, but eventually, we called it quits and decided to keep it. We had planed down a bunch of boards and realized just how beautiful the wood was underneath the patina. Craig started building furniture—nice furniture—and getting commissions, so it made sense not to sell off our supply.
We asked Josh if we could keep our stock on his property just a little longer. He said sure. The months stretched into years. In the time our wood has lived there, Josh has built a house and gotten married, and his wife just gave birth to their second kid. He used some of the barn wood in their house, framing the windows that open out to the Sapphire Mountains, through which he and his children will watch the deer cross the creek and listen to the pair of barn owls that nest up in the pines. He lives just a few miles from where the barns sat, from where the trees grew. This is the right thing. I’d rather have our barns live on in these small places and intimate ways than in some rich folks’ house any day.
We aren’t in any hurry. Imbued with history, the wood seems to ask contemplation and reflection. Oftentimes I’ll find Craig in the woodshop, just staring at a board. “Just look at it. It’s beautiful. See here, you can see how the cambium grew back around this fire scar, and over here, see the way it discolored around this nail hole?” And now, it continues. Here, I sit at a desk built of those boards, some of which I can remember in their places in the barns. One leg is made of a piece I saw on the first visit to the site, a beam from the hay barn with a small 7 branded into it. The top is made of joists from the loft, planed down to smoothness, the color of honey. Nail holes trace along the front, and in two places, small bits of metal glint: barbed wire strung a century ago that the tree grew around and took with it, through history, up to now.