Farm Structures Restored for a New Generation

Idaho collector gives old, abandoned farm structures new life

The grain bin at its new site

The grain bin at its new site. The building was shortened slightly from its original height.

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With the dramatic decline of rural population in the past 70 years, structures on countless thousands of American farms have been abandoned. Small out-buildings have decayed the most rapidly, but it is only a matter of time until all traces of those farmsteads vanish. 

At the same time, increasing numbers of people are actively collecting almost anything having to do with the early 1900s. Old tractors and machinery are extremely popular, as are related collectibles and even decades-old farm structures. My sons and I never thought of what we were doing as “collecting,” but we have preserved a bit of the past by saving abandoned farm structures.

We were uniquely well equipped to tackle such a project. We had the equipment to get the job done, land to relocate the farm structures to and, following badly needed improvements, a valid, clearly defined plan for the structures. When such structures get a new lease on life, it is inevitable that they will lose some of their historical authenticity – but the buildings are preserved and continue to serve a useful purpose.

Staking a new claim

Over the years, my sons and I have saved six old buildings, all of which are currently being used. One of them is a homestead house, a remnant of the 1880s, when the earliest settlers arrived in our isolated area of south central Idaho.

When we learned of a landowner’s plans to burn all remaining structures on an old settlement, an idea began to take form. Since I own collectible vehicles that need to be stored inside, I mobilized two of my high school-age sons with the idea of salvaging a farm structure that could be used as a garage.

As a World War II military vehicle enthusiast, I have a 1944 International Harvester H-542-11 five-ton 4x2 semi tractor capable of moving a building. We borrowed a huge trailer designed to transport an excavation machine commonly known as a dragline. The farm building we chose was the original homestead “prove-up” shack from the 1880s that was later used as a wood shed. It was still about one-fourth full of ancient wood but also contained lots of old junk – enough to fill three overflowing pickup loads.

The three of us faced a daunting task: jacking up a 12-foot by 14-foot wood frame building high enough to load it on the bed of a trailer that is almost three feet off the ground. Two days of back-breaking work using borrowed screw-type house jacks, 10-ton hydraulic jacks, several Hi-Lift or Handyman jacks (which made it possible to stabilize the house after it was up in the air) and a lot of wood blocks resulted in success.

The huge old military truck is geared so low that it practically loafed along as we began the 15-mile move. Fortunately, sparse rural population made it possible to travel almost the whole way on back roads where there was no traffic. Every once in a while it was necessary to just creep along as low-hanging power lines were carefully lifted high enough for the building to pass underneath. When attempting to move a building, be sure to check local ordinances first.

Expect the unexpected

When we got home, we faced a problem we hadn’t anticipated. All gates into our property have tall poles with crossbars. A lot of careful measuring indicated the building would just go through width-wise, but the roof’s eaves were too wide. A low crossbar was another impediment. But having come this far, we weren’t to be denied: We improvised.

One son removed one end of the crossbar so he could lift it high enough to clear. The other son lay on the roof and with his feet pushed the tops of the gate poles out as far as he could spring them, first on one side and then the other. That made it possible for the homestead house to enter the property as the eave boards scraped along the tall poles and a son walked back along the roof carrying the crossbar. The crossbar was then replaced and we were home free.

Several weeks of work transformed the shabby building into a very attractive garage. A carport-type extension was added to one side, creating a parking place for the military truck that brought the building home. From the outside you would never suspect the building’s origin. But when the doors swing open, you step back into the original homestead house interior. Everything is kept as it was, from the shelf where the pioneer builder shaved to the simple hooks where family members hung their clothes. Wide gaps between once “green” boards are clearly visible. The rags that an earlier owner used to fill those cracks are still there.

Wartime challenges

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, things changed dramatically on the home front, including interstate shipping. In the 1940s, almost all interstate shipping and transportation was handled by an extensive railroad network. In wartime, that network was taxed to the maximum by military and civilian demands. There just wasn’t enough capacity to handle both. Shipping of bulk farm products was curtailed and storage became increasingly critical.

One solution made storage available to farmers. For dry crops, pre-fabricated storage buildings were available at a reasonable cost. My uncle, John Gaskill, purchased one in 1942 for $300. What he received was several huge flat bundles of wood that, when assembled, created a round grain bin capable of storing up to 3,000 bushels.

The floor was created by fastening extra-sturdy boards to long, heavy planks designed to sit on concrete pads or large flat rocks. The walls were erected in Lincoln Log-fashion, cut to interlock with each other. Each board (6 inches wide and 1-1/2 inches thick) had a tongue on top and a groove on the bottom, preventing gaps when assembled. The bin’s roof was basically flat; one side was slightly higher, facilitating runoff.

A bushel of wheat weighs 60 pounds, so the bin’s maximum weight capacity was 180,000 pounds. The building’s round shape helped keep that weight from pushing the walls out. In addition, 4x4 planks spanned the width in several places and were anchored with vertical uprights on the outside.

Repurposed storage

The well-designed bins were used for grain storage for decades. In the 1980s, though, the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned human consumption of grain stored in wooden grain bins. Rodents could chew their way into such structures and contaminate grain stored there. That ruling caused my uncle’s unique bin to fall into disuse after 40 years of use.

I decided to move the bin to my place. A couple of my teenage sons were willing to help, so we began the work of disassembly. Removing the roof was the most difficult part but when that was accomplished, the wallboards came apart neatly. Because just two lengths were used, the boards did not need to be marked. In reassembly it was easy to tell where any specific board should be placed.

The sturdy floor was 20 feet in diameter so transporting it a dozen miles on rural roads was a challenge, but it was essentially just a large flat disk on a machinery trailer.

Home to a collection

Before the walls could be reconstructed, the scuffed original floor was covered with tongue-and-groove 4-foot by 8-foot sheets. Then board after board was set on the board below it, all the way around. Working all by myself, I erected the walls in less than a day.

The original roof proved to be the bin’s major weakness. No matter how carefully it was maintained, it had a tendency to leak. It needed a peaked roof, but how do you put a peaked roof on a round building? It is not impossible but it is very difficult. It took me almost a month. All of the rafters had to converge in the center. Figuring out how they needed to be cut to fit together was a huge challenge. When that was accomplished, triangular sheeting was cut and installed, followed by tarpaper and heavy galvanized roofing.

By that time we’d determined a use for the building. We added a ceiling, insulation, wood panels and hardwood flooring. Installation of wiring and a wall heater made the building suitable for a small personal museum. People who are interested in agricultural architecture are almost as interested in the building as in its contents.

It seemed so simple…

Many people think of the good old days as charmingly idyllic. In reality, conveniences on the farm were few and far between. Nowhere was that more evident than with bathroom facilities. The outhouse was the smallest but the most important building on every farm.

My brother has a log cabin in the mountains. I was asked to locate an outhouse for it from an abandoned farm. Although I know our valley well and am aware of all remaining buildings on long-abandoned farm sites, that assignment proved to be a difficult task. Landowners simply could not be talked into parting with their privies. (It should be noted here that the very process of approaching someone to ask for an outhouse was a unique undertaking.) The humble structures’ monetary value was so low that owners could not be enticed to sell them. They were considered an important identification point on a particular piece of farmland.

Finally I was told that I could remove a very decent outhouse from a rural location. There was one stipulation: If questioned as to what I was doing, the individual giving me permission (who farmed the land as part-owner with other non-local family members) would disavow having given me permission. In other words, I could haul the outhouse away at my own risk. There was a chance I could be accused of theft if my activities attracted attention.

Undercover mission

To increase my chances of success I decided to use my little jeep for this project. It looks just like a regular flat-hood jeep of the 1940s and early ’50s, except its longer wheel base allows use of a short pickup box on the back. Since it was small and its green paint would cause it to blend with the surroundings, the jeep might be less noticeable should anyone pass by as I loaded the outhouse.

With a sense of urgency I backed the jeep up to the small building. Since a hole under the outhouse is part of its function, I found that jacking it up enough to load was extremely difficult. Approximately an hour’s fevered work resulted in getting the outhouse tipped into the jeep’s pickup box with a piece of its roof pried off to clear the cab. It was necessary to block the base up some on the tailgate but eventually it was loaded. My luck held: No one had passed by.

I traveled back roads for about 20 miles with my overloaded jeep. Meeting other vehicles proved to be no problem but the occupants of the few that passed me must have been surprised to see the underside of a “two-holer.” Such a sight was sure to become the subject of local gossip. My unusual jeep was well known locally and there was no escaping being identified as the “outhouse hauler.”

In its new setting the outhouse actually looks better than before, when it was a straggling remainder of a long abandoned home. Now it is an important part of often bustling activity many times every year. The cabin may not have five rooms and a bath but it does have five rooms and a path. Several decades have passed since the move was made, but the outhouse is still in use. When needed, it is the most important building on the property as well as a noteworthy farm collectible.

A truly mobile home

As farms became larger over the years, many tenant farmer homes have been abandoned. When a local farmer expanded his operation by purchasing a neighboring farm, he asked if I was interested in the tenant house on it. We agreed on a price ($25) and I began to consider the logistics. I had no idea how it could be moved to my place, but since it was only a mile away it didn’t seem an insurmountable task.

The first thing to do was to strip it down to a moveable size. A couple of additions were removed. We jacked the house up off its foundation and placed long skids (salvaged power poles) under it.

A 1953 John Deere Model R diesel tractor was borrowed to provide motive power. The largest tractor John Deere made in the early 1950s, the Model R is known as the standard tractor in western grain fields. In the world of wheel tractors, Model R’s were about as big and powerful as they came.

We quickly found, however, that the house’s weight was more than the tractor could pull. To reduce the weight considerably the roof was removed. We hated to do that because what was left didn’t really look that impressive, as far as a building was concerned. However, we were far enough in that we had no alternative.

Taking it slow and easy

The tractor handled the roofless house, but jockeying the house from where it sat onto the road leading to our place was a major job. An extremely long item on skids does not turn easily. When that was finally accomplished, the crew and I began the pull down the road. The boys rode on the house as it skidded along. The poor old John Deere was doing all it could possibly do. In low gear it lugged along, belching black smoke. It never could get its engine revolutions up as far as they needed to be, so for the whole trip it went “put–put–put–put” with a plume of smoke belching out each time one of the huge two cylinders fired. 

The tenant house was pulled on to a previously prepared place on our property. The gallant old Model R had been asked to do a huge job and came through with flying colors, though in the form of black smoke. The skids were removed and the house set down on a foundation. We had an extremely well built 13-foot by 32-foot building with tongue-and-groove construction inside and out. The weight of all that wood made the move difficult but you could not find a sturdier building. For $25 we got thousands and thousands of board feet of construction lumber that today is so expensive few can afford any of it.

Since a new roof was needed, we expanded what we had to make a larger structure. The tenant house became about one-third of a building designed to store collector vehicles: 10 vehicles, two big trucks and eight cars. Much work by my sons and me resulted in a building my wife dubbed “the monster.”

Repurposed, again & again

Times change. Eighteen years later, one of the sons who helped move the tenant house needed a home for him and his new bride. In 2001, a portion of “the monster” was converted into an apartment. Further family changes required additional living space. In 2005, the “monster” became a 1,200-square-foot house and three-car garage.

Although the original tenant house didn’t even have an indoor bathroom, the new home has two bathrooms along with three bedrooms, a nice kitchen, a living room and a den/office.

Those tongue-and-groove interior walls were sanded and varnished to a beautiful surface. Members of the original tenant farm family would not recognize the home they lived in, now the major part of a modern home in the 21st century. When collecting old farm buildings, you may find that they start out shabby, but with hard work and creativity, most hold great promise. FC 

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school. For more than 50 years he’s worked on his uncle’s hay and grain ranch during the summer. Currently they swath, rake and big bale 1,000 acres of dry land hay each summer. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 MST or by e-mail at cballard@northrim.net.