Tales from Beacon Hollow Farm: Barns

Sat, 08/25/2018 - 6:30am
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Let's talk about Block Island barns.

With the demise of most old Block Island barns over the years, we are left with just a few Island relics — if even that. Within the last year we lost Champlin's Farm — the last really bucolic farm structure, hay lofts above, dairy cows below — to a development. A few years back, the old, very large, Payne Farm dairy barn came down. I was fortunate enough knowing the previous owner of Champlin's to obtain from the dairy cow section in the basement a trove of old farm implements, horse drawn plows, cultivators, oxen cart with wheels, wagon wheels and more. They were buried in hay for who knows how long and in excellent shape.

The Barn at the Springhouse, now a restaurant, bar and apartments was at one time an ice house, a carriage house, horse barn, and finally employee housing. Thanks to owner Frank DiBiase the restored structure from the outside looks as it has for over 150 years. I said from the outside. At a point many years ago, during a property sale transition at The Springhouse, I was offered the contents of what was the ice house at one time. It was going to the dump, but is now displayed at Beacon Hollow Farm. There are ice tongs, horse drawn ice cutters, ice saws, snow scrapers, cleats for boots, sleds, skies and antique ice skates. Much of this was used by hotel guests in late 1800's.

Our barn at Beacon Hollow is not the original but is built on the original foundation, consisting of huge boulders that are now the building blocks of a replica barn. The barn is a post and beam, and much of the timber is from Rhode Island saw mills. We tried hard to build it to the original specifications. Hence, you can find it displayed on many barn calendars across the country. Like most barns, additions are eventually applied to some sides, farmers always needing more room. In our case, just housing all the antique remnants from other barns and farms has filled it to capacity. Sometimes I think I should have collected coins.

I have always admired the Adrian Mitchell barn and farm on Corn Neck Road. But Adrian himself admitted to me that, although his house is original and hundreds of years old, the barn was much larger and came down in the ’38 hurricane and again replaced on the old foundation. It remains a post card picture and subject of many paintings.

The old barn on Joe Sprague's farm could be one of the oldest. Not that large but still houses horses today. The heritage Sprague homestead sits along side. At the Pennington “Tiny” Sprague lumber yard the lumber barn, adjacent to the ancient Pennington Family home, is also in contention for one of the oldest. Many old barn foundations or even structures themselves now have homes built upon them but don't resemble the original buildings.

As you drive the island you can still see a few smaller versions of barns, some like the small barn near Bill Dunn bridge which is in disrepair, but was a cow barn. Merrill Slate told me that the bull would cross the inlet at low tide and look for love sometimes across the island. A barn on the John Littlefield Farm adjacent to Clayhead and the Maze sits stoically overlooking the ocean. Not too long ago herds of sheep could be seen there while walking the trails.

All in all, it has been said that every view on Block Island should be a postcard. Well, maybe if there is a barn in it.