I almost expected them to break out into song. The Amish barn-raising was so well choreographed, the movement of men and boys never stopped. Like a dance, they all seemed to know just what to do, flowing from one task to the next seamlessly. The beat of their hammers was the music, the barn an evolving stage.
They stood on the first floor of the barn with their backs to us, dark blue pants, shirts faded to various shades of the same blue, and straw hats. I thought they were praying then they all bent over at the same time and up came the first bent, the east wall of the barn. Once it was standing, wedged into the grooves cut out to accept the posts, the hammering began.
We in the audience, stood on the hill watching.
More cars pulled up as the morning went on. Our friends Kim and Jack came with coffee and chairs as did many others.
“I feel a little guilty just sitting here watching, while they do all that work.” Kim said, “But I could go for one of their donuts.” A cup of tea and donut sounded good to me too. It was a cool morning. But I felt no guilt watching, just wonder at what I was seeing. I was grateful not to be swinging a hammer and hauling wood.
Jack offered me his chair and I sat next to Kim while Jon circled around taking pictures and talking to some of the other people who came to watch.
“Look,” Kim said, “how they swing that up.”
The older boys balanced on the top beams of the highest bents swinging “v” shaped lumber that had been nailed together, till the bottom of the “v” was over their heads. Then they nailed the first roof joists into place.
Again and again, we pointed out what was happening next. It was hard to keep up with them because while thirty men lifted a gable wall, on the other side of the barn men were getting ready to lift another bent.
The frame of the barn became the scaffolding and ladders the men climbed and balanced on to reach the places they needed to get to. All the wood was premeasured, ready to fit into place, like assembling a giant three-dimensional puzzle.
Lines were measured out on the siding and three nails were preset on each one. One plank at a time was handed to a man standing on a beam halfway up the wall. The bottom edge of the plank was set on a ledge just big enough to rest on. Then the man reached around the plank holding on with one hand and hammering the preset nails with the other.
The only tools I saw them use were hammers, hand saws, and ropes.
Boys big enough to wear a small toolbelt hauled rafters and drove the two draft horses pulling a wagon loaded with lumber. The even smaller boys played together, until someone asked them to bring a saw or gather up the scraps of wood in their wagon.
Sara showed up, holding the hands of three children even younger than her, but none of the women or older girls were there. When Jon and I dropped ice off earlier in the morning I saw the long tables set up in the kitchen where they would all be eating. I’m sure the women were busy cooking.
At some point during the day, the women and girls will also be hand quilting a quilt that Lena made. I hope to get to see that too.
Jon and I got to the site at 6:30 am, by 8:15 am all the wall bents were up, the rafters were on the roof, and they were putting the wood siding on the walls.
Once again, I was stunned by the way the Amish work together.
There were over fifty men working, and no one argued over how things should be done or who should be doing what. No one complained. The foreman set the agenda but other than his occasional shouts with directions, there was little talking.
Sitting in my studio I can still hear the sound of the hammers echoing from our neighbors building their barn up the road. I have no doubt that by the end of the day the siding will be up and the roof done.
It was stunning to see this barn come together with just manpower and hand tools. I think it’s the simplicity that makes it so beautiful. The whole thing from the building materials and construction, to how the work is actually done, as well as the interaction between the workers, is so direct, all right there for anyone to see.
And we did see it.
“I feel like we should be applauding,” Kim said. I agreed. It was a spectacular performance.