Balanced Beam

A day before the barn-raising in Leeds, the frame cutting was going ahead the way it would have 150 years ago.

Behind the Ben Ayers ’99–Kirsten Walter ’00 farmhouse, barn designer and friend Brad Morse ’99, along with neighbor Bruce Bell, was cutting beams from hemlock timbers that Bell and son Nat had milled. On Morse’s T-shirt was the phrase “Measure twice, cut once.” An understatement, actually, said Morse with a smile. “I’m pretty picky about everything, so I do it more than twice.”

There were a few concessions to modern convenience — the whine of Bell’s Big Foot circular saw represented one — but other sights were pure Americana. Graybeard neighbor Ian Ormon, seated at a shaving horse, was using a drawknife to shape oak pegs. The next day, a huge wooden maul (“commander”) would be used to bang the pegs into place to fix the mortise and tenon joints.

Metaphorical Bates pegs abounded. All the wedding guests — including 35 Bates alums — would etch their names into the transom’s stained glass, created at the Maine Art Glass Studio in Lisbon Falls, co-owned by Jim Nutting ’76. Wedding guests would enjoy a meal prepared by L’Acadie Catering, owned by Jon Weislogel ’94. His goal is to create “100-percent Maine, organic…food that supports the emerging green and fair-trade economy.”

The fare reflected Ayers and Walter’s social mindset, as each is wise to the ways of social entrepreneurship. After graduation, Ayers founded Porters Progress to help Nepali mountain porters and says he fueled it with high-octane idealism. Recently, he found it hard to build a sustainable management structure for the nonprofit, one that didn’t depend entirely on his vision and direction. The lesson learned? “Sometimes you have to renegotiate your idealism.”

For Ayers, this renegotiation has yielded a balanced, rewarding life. While his current work is with dZi Foundation, supporting social programs in Himalayan communities, Ayers is also involved in Maine forestry (he logged the timbers for his barn). Settled in an old farmhouse, and looking ahead to restoring it with Walter, is “something I thought I’d be able to do only when I was an old man.”

When writer and illustrator Eric Sloane wrote An Age of Barns in 1967, he thought that the American ethos behind great 18th- and 19th-century timber-frame barns had eroded. Gone were farmers (who were also woodsmen, teachers, artists, weavers, farriers, and more) who executed diverse tasks with a “reverence for excellence.” The term “sustainable” wasn’t available to Sloane in the ’60s, but when he bemoaned the erosion of excellence, he was lamenting the loss of a sustainable ethic.

A new timber-frame barn now stands beside a circa-1800 farmhouse in Leeds. Its physical and ethical construction reflects Sloane’s revered principles — the triumph of experience grafted to idealism — and it was built by Bates people who live that ethos.

Barns, Sloane wrote, are shrines that “ought to be remembered.” The barn of Ben Ayers and Kirsten Walter is a shrine all right. It’s a monument to what Sloane believed was fading, but has not.

By H. Jay Burns, Editor

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