Monday, September 8, 2003

WINDSOR, Vt. - Carpenters in a drafty old factory near the Connecticut River were preparing the remains of a farmer’s 160-year-old barn for a new life.

They cleaned the beams, including three 55-foot-long hemlock pieces that stretched the length of the building. They chiseled out rotted sections and glued in good old wood from other barns.

The replacement parts will be barely visible when the beams are reassembled into a hay barn for a gentleman-farmer on the other side of the river, in New Hampshire.

The carpenters work for the Barn People, a group that has found itself in the midst of a dispute that pits those who are trying to preserve New England history against a restoration artist who claims he is breathing new life into crumbling structures.

The Barn People is one of about a dozen contractors in New England specializing in disassembling old barns, especially the 18th- and 19th-century barns held up by massive posts and beams.

Sometimes the barns are reassembled for agricultural use in New England. More often they are turned into guest houses, “great room” additions or massive homes.

They often are reassembled for well-heeled clients in Hollywood, Calif., New York’s Long Island, Sun Valley, Idaho, and around Washington state’s Puget Sound.

The old beams add strength and comfort to new construction, admirers say.

But the barns’ migration doesn’t sit well with some New Englanders, like Vince Kuharik, a Meredith, N.H., barn lover.

“They want bragging rights. They want a little bit of New England history,” Mr. Kuharik said. “But it’s our history, not theirs.”

For half a year, Ken Epworth, owner of the Barn People, has been at the center of the dispute in Concord, N.H., where residents accuse him of plundering the rural landscape, buying old barns and shipping them out of state.

What started the dispute was a big yellow barn that Mr. Epworth bought and planned to dismantle.

The barn was built in 1774 by Nathaniel Rolfe, an early settler on what was then the northern frontier of the colonies. Rolfe was a descendant of John Rolfe, who married Pocahontas, and an ancestor of Red Rolfe, third baseman for the New York Yankees in the mid-20th century.

The barn is large, well-preserved and of a relatively rare design, and its neighbors don’t want it to go.

The Penacook Historical Society wants to use the barn for an exhibit, and a teacher wants to use it for lessons about the nation’s agricultural past. At heated City Council meetings, neighbors recalled ballgames and sledding parties behind the barn.

“It’s just not an ordinary barn,” said Jim McConaha, a state historic-preservation officer.

“The structure is unique, it’s in perfect condition and, historically, it’s belonged to the same family — an important family in our history — for about 200 years.”

The council in February voted to take the barn from Mr. Epworth by eminent domain. It is waiting for an appraisal before proceeding.

Mr. Epworth, a 57-year-old New York native, feels he is helping to preserve bits of history.

“The barn represents a way of life that no longer exists,” he said.

“At one time, 90 percent of America lived on farms.”

Around Concord, Mr. Epworth was being compared to Lord Elgin, who plundered classical antiques from Greece in the early 19th century to fill British museums.

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