Farmstead building houses generations of family history
Like many farms of the late 1800s and early 1900s vintage, ours has several wooden outbuildings, each of them named to reflect their original function.
To build it up or tear it down? That’s the question that my husband, Brian, and I frequently have asked ourselves during the past 28 years that we have lived on our farmstead.
Like many farms of the late 1800s and early 1900s vintage, ours has several wooden outbuildings, each of them named to reflect their original function. There is the machine shed, which has an open front, a granary with eight bins, and the bunkhouse, which was the original house when the first owner homesteaded.
When my great-grandparents purchased the farmstead in 1911 and built their house — the one in which my family and I now live — about 25 yards from the original house, they re-purposed the latter building into living quarters for hired men.
During the farming season, men — many of them lumberjacks from northern Minnesota — lived in the bunkhouse while they worked in my great-grandfather’s and, later, my grandfather’s fields. My great-grandmother, Theresa, and my grandmother, Anna, served the men full-course breakfasts, dinners and suppers in the main house.
Housing their employees continued into the early 1960s, so I grew up referring to the house as the bunkhouse and passed on the tradition to my children. In 2022, although no one has lived in the building for 60 years, it’s still the “bunkhouse.”
It’s testimony to the quality of construction more than 100 years ago and my great-grandparent’s and grandparent’s stewardship of the machine shed, granary and bunkhouse that the buildings still are standing and in relatively good condition.
They repaired them when they needed it, re-roofed them and painted them to keep them from deteriorating. Brian and I have done the same since we moved to the farm in 1994.
Though we've done due diligence to keep the bunkhouse in fairly good repair, we’ve hit a decision making point, because now it doesn’t need just attention to one or two structural and aesthetic issues, but several. Each of the repairs that need to be done are essential to the continued longevity of the bunkhouse, so we don’t have the latitude to pick and choose which of them to do.
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Starting from the top, down, the roof needs to be re-shingled, the wooden siding is so weathered paint won’t stick to it and the frames of the seven windows are crumbling so the glass panes are out of place.
But the most serious structural issue is the bunkhouse’s foundation, which is made of field stone. More than 125 years of wind, rain, snow and heat have worn away and chipped the stones holding up the bunkhouse, which has no basement.
This summer I have gone back and forth about whether we should tear the bunkhouse down or repair it. Common sense tells me that we should demolish it. Realistically, I know that repairing it would be opening a Pandora’s Box of problems that would require attention, and likely cost a bundle of money to address them.
But common sense vies with strong emotion in this case because I am the fourth generation to live on the farmstead and my children are the fifth raised here. The responsibility to take care of the gifts I have been given by those who have gone before me, the desire to preserve a piece of history, and the niggling thought that I know there must be a viable use for the bunkhouse in the 21st century also influence my decision on determining the bunkhouse’s fate.
Several times this summer, I’ve thought that I had made a final decision — yes, I’m going to tear it down, no I’m going to repair it. I changed my mind twice last week within a few days. When I was mowing the yard and had a view of the peeling paint on the outside and the windows sinking into the siding, I decided I needed to call a contractor to bulldoze it into a pile and then burn it.
But the other day when I went inside to look for an item I had stored inside and looked around at the beadboard walls, vintage, bare wooden plank floors and the painting my sons, daughter and their friends had put on the walls several years ago when they used it as a clubhouse, waves of nostalgia washed over me, and I couldn’t imagine getting rid of a part of our family’s history.
During the next several months, I will contemplate the pros and cons of repairing it versus tearing it down and investigate the cost of materials and labor and whether there is funding available to preserve old buildings.
Then, in the spring, I will make a decision based on practical factors and, most importantly, prayer and reflection on Proverbs: 3-5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.”
In doing so, either decision will be one I can live with.
Ann Bailey lives on a farmstead near Larimore, N.D., that has been in her family since 1911. You can reach her at 218-779-8093 or firstname.lastname@example.org.