History Comes Alive
By Sarah Jusseaume
Hampton Union, Tuesday, September 12, 2006
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online]
How easy is it to connect to the past? You can read books and look at photos and gain some understanding, but how often can you touch the past? This•is something master carpenter David DeGagne thinks about often when he's working on the reconstruction of a historic barn in Hampton.
"I put my hands on the same beams at the same places and perform the same tasks that the builders of this barn did over 200 years before," DeGagne says as he bends over one of the solid beams. Then he gestures toward one of the pencil marks on the beam.
"Lbok," he says with excitement, "This mark is mine from a few days ago, and this one is theirs, from two centuries ago, and they're exactly the same. When we're putting this barn back together, it's like we're trying to read their minds."
DeGagne is one of many volunteers working on the reconstruction of the Toppan-Leavitt barn. The barn stood on the corner of Lafayette and Drakeside Road for more than 200 years. When current owners purchased the lot and planned on tearing it down, the town stepped in.
Before the barn could be demolished, the Heritage Commission had to approve it, as the structure was more than 50 years old. The Heritage Commission determined that the barn could be saved and the owners contributed some of the costs for the historical society to come in andul it away, piece by piece.
This work was done in the spring of 2004. Individual pieces were stored in various available spaces around town until the resurrection began earlier this year on the grounds of the Hampton Historical Society.
The Leavitt House Barn was built around 1796. The barn is believed to have been built by Captain Caleb Toppan, a local merchant, explaining why it is often called The Toppan-Leavitt Barn. The barn originally stood in North Hampton and was moved to its permanent location in the late 18th century. Some of the exact dates are unclear and research is ongoing.
What is clear is that the barn was well built and even after 200 years, is in very good condition. It has its entire original framework and some of the beams are almost 40 feet long.
"You don't see history like this all the time," said DeGagne. "It's important to save it for future generations to learn how our ancestors lived and worked. They chopped down their own trees and used primitive tools and they did all of this work under adverse conditions; they didn't have all the modem conveniences that we have today"
But our modern conveniences, though more efficient, aren't always better. According to DeGagne, the wood that they had access to more than 200 years ago was better than what we have to work with today. Around the end of the 18th century, there was plenty of strong timber readily available including oak, hemlock and chestnut.
Unfortunately, the chestnut plight of the early 1900s wiped out virtually all of the chestnut trees in the area.
Another factor is that the wood they used was from tall and straight trees, with no knots. The builders of previous generations had no plywood and glue to strengthen their structures. They relied solely on the strength of the wood.
While builders today must make do with the wood that they have access to and what is afford-able, mostly pine and some oak, DeGagne tries to use the tools that they used in the 18th century as much as he can.
"Of course I'll use the skill saw or chain saw if I have to," said DeGagne. But the master carpenter, clearly a lifelong student of his profession, enjoys using the old tools whenever he can, including the framing square and a bit brace. DeGagne explains that the metals used to make tools 200 years ago were stronger.
"The closer to the surface the iron ore is, the more carbon there is in it — the more carbon, the stronger the iron. However, over years and years of mining, the ore we mine now is that much farther from the surface, has less carbon and is softer." • The Toppan-Leavitt barn is a perfect example of an "in-town" carriage-barn, says DeGagne. It likely did not house animals but was used primarily for carriages. A large door on either end would allow for carriages to easily drive in one side and out the other.
"The barn was built very well, and is in excellent condition," said Chet Riley, an expert on IllslonC halls. "It is a Prilue example of one of Iie earliest limns in this alga. Its a };real piece of our history" (;het Riley because involved in the project early on. A member of the 'limbo name's Guild, Riley works OCl projects to save and restore Historic hares in New I lalnpshire. The idea is to save the barns (loin deniolition, which alien requires them apal t piece by piece and reconstructing their sot rlewllere else, as is tile case with die Leavitt I louse haul. According to Riley, there are Inure than 20,000 historic hares in the state that are more than 75 years old. Riley was one of the fu st people called in to determine if this particular Marti was salvageable.
'file Historical society is try-ing to raise a total of $30,000 toward the reconsiructioil ofllle barn.'I Iie most recent fined-raiser was llelcl last Sattuday on the historical society gtot Inds. 'I he pig roast, featuring a raffle, silent auction, music mid other activities, was sold out and $6,000 was raised to support the historical society and the Project. More than $1,000 was raised lion) lie raffle alone,
"This is truly a community effort," said Sammie Moe, president of the Hampton I list orical Society. "We're relying only on volunteers and tl iere have been a lot of people win) l lave given their time, a lot of people have been involved in this effort."
Most of the money raised for the barn goes towards replacement parts. According to DeGagne, one of the most time-consuming aspects of the restoration is determining how many pieces of original lumber are salvageable. Each beam has to be individually examined. While it's important to save the historic value of the barn, time new building must also be structurally sound. Many beams have rotted out or have suffered too much damage at the hands of time and are not strong enough to use in the new structure.
The historical society hopes to complete the rebuilding of the barn and raise it before snow falls this winter. However, given that all of the work is done on a volunteer basis, iuld the variability of the New England weather, it may have to wait until the spring. The barn will be used by the historical society for museum space, special exhibits and as open coal" nn i lily space.