Peter Olsen’s Barn

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One of my fondest childhood memories is playing in a gigantic white barn on my grandmother’s farm in Ohio. It was like exploring the ruins of a Mayan temple. The huge main floor seemed like a dusty cathedral. The understory where many cows had lived was dark and mysterious. The pigeons flapping away in the rafters thrilled me. My grandmother’s barn is long gone, but that experience has always stayed with me, which makes the story I am about to tell you all that much more special to me.

An amazing old post-and-beam timber-frame barn is on the outskirts of the little town of Chester, California. As you drive out Highway 32 on the east side of town, you’ll turn your gaze south toward Lake Almanor and there, in a large meadow, is an imposing structure way back off the highway. You can tell it’s a huge barn because it looks huge even at that distance. It’s like some farm country Taj Mahal. The setting helps. It’s smack dab in the middle of a wide open field. The field is flat as a pancake.

This timber frame barn, nearly 150 years old, is a celebration of wood on a massive scale.

The steep pitch of the roof enables snow to slide off easily. (Photo by Jan Davies)

I talked with Marilyn Quadrio, co-director of the Chester-Lake Almanor Museum and a local historian. Vanessa Vasquez of the Feather River Land Trust drove over from Quincy to give us a tour. It turns out the FRLT is making a campaign to buy and preserve the land and the barn so it was good timing.

Marilyn, who is a wonderful storyteller, told us the fascinating history of the early settlers. One of them was Melissa Bailey Olsen. Melissa was the matriarch of the family and a founder of Chester. Her husband, Peter Olsen, was a Norwegian immigrant who made his way to Plumas County via Pennsylvania. He was a master barn builder.

Have you ever thought about what goes into making a barn of this size? As I stood in the center of the barn gazing up into the rafters I was struck by the size and sheer volume of material needed to build it. Except for using the steam-powered saw mill, everything was constructed through manual labor. Even at the height of the industrial revolution of the 19th century, mass-produced materials had not reached the farm. The farmer found happiness through making things we get from catalogs today. Real joy came from designing and doing.

It almost goes without saying that the effort to raise this barn was enormous. The trees were felled by hand (they did not have chainsaws in 1870). The beams were hewn out of a single tree trunk with broad axes and adzes. The broad axe was used for chopping or notching and hewing square timbers. The adze was used for smoothing the timbers. Drills, chisels and mallets were used to form the mortises and tenon joinery. Very few nails were ever used. A maul, which is a heavy wooden mallet with iron reinforcing, was used to pound beams into place.

With pike poles and ropes, a team of laborers lifted the enormous bents. Bents are handmade prefabricated framed units of the barn that form the bays. The Olsen barn is a “basilican” plan. This plan was devised for barns when the span was too great for the rafters to take the load of the roof and too wide for a single horizontal beam. They used what are called “purlins.” A purlin is a longitudinal member that supports the rafters in between the plates and the ridge. Posts and braces supported the purlin. Because of the size of the barn, purlins were used in the Olsen barn. The result is a central space called a “nave” – like in a church – and the galleries at the sides form the aisles – also like in a church. Depending on the purpose of the barn, the central area might be a threshing floor or, in the case of the Olsen barn, hay was stored there. The dairy cows were milked and fed in the aisles.

A cathedral of wood. (Photo by Jan Davies)

The mark of the adze. (Photo by Jan Davies)

A great horned owl says, “Thank you for my barn.” (Photo by Jan Davies)

I made up my mind to calculate a rough estimate for how much material might go into a barn of this size. We didn’t take our tape measure to the barn so we made an educated guess as to its size. We decided to estimate that the barn is 50 feet tall, 80 feet long and 50 feet wide. We estimated that the sides of the barn were 15 feet high and the roof is 80 feet long and 45 feet tall.

This reads like a book from the Bible. The book Numbers comes to mind. There would have been about 3,600 shake shingles that needed to be shaved. They would have needed about 376 boards for siding, and 82 individual lodge pole pines trees dressed out for the rafters. For the main beams, 40 trees would have had to be felled and made square. The trees would have been Douglas fir, red cedar or yellow pine. For the posts, they would have needed 54 more trees. Each post would have also been carved out of a single tree. Then they would have needed 54 braces, but they would not have to be from a single tree as they were smaller. Finally each beam and post would need to be carved to fit the mortise and tenon joints. In addition to all this, dowels were hand carved to fit the joints.

The mortise and tenon joints are invisible, but you can see the anchoring dowels.

Marilyn said, “The siding came from a 10- to 29-mile radius. There was plentiful timber everywhere, and sawmills processed the wood. The original roof was covered with handmade shake shingles. During the 19th century and even the early 20th, there were shake makers traveling up into the forests and shaving shakes all summer, but Peter made his own. The latches and gate hardware used on the barn were hand forged by local blacksmiths.”

Here are some photographs of the Olsen family. Unfortunately there are no surviving photographs of the barn builder himself.

George Olsen, second from left, with milk pails, Maude Gay, Ed Olsen’s baby Freda, wife Carrie and son Bill.

Back row: George Olsen, Melissa’s niece Blanche Stuckey, granddaughter Edith Martin, son Frank Bailey, niece Maude Gay, son Ed Olsen. Front row: Melissa Bailey Olsen, grandnephew Randall Gay, sister Elizabeth Stuckey.

Marilyn said, “The people living on the slopes of Mt. Lassen were isolated so they had to be self-reliant, and also reliant upon their neighbors. All this knowledge does not have to be lost. All we have to do is take an interest and it can be preserved.”

My Barn

by Dean Hughes

Look there!
It stands today
As strong as six-score memoried years ago;
A big barn built to last the long rows of sleek cows,
In the stables underneath,
The long dark winter through.

Examine, if you will,
These giant plates and beams,
These stalwart loins and limbs and thighs.
Each one was once upon a splendid time
A giant pine
Singing a hundred feet towards the skies,
Then topped to sixty feet of needed length,
Hewed from the round to fourteen inches square.

See there!
The marks of the hewing axe and adze,
Swung straight and true.

Read there the tale
Of toil and sweat and a fine pride
In shaping these great timbers.

Stand with me
A wondrous moment.

In that crafted tree
Is history enough of old great-grandsire times
A century ago and more.

Those sheathing boards,
Those tenons, mortices and dowels,
Those thews and sinews,
Those mitres beveled true,
Fitted in tight embrace to fight the winds
And the strong side-thrust of the sheaves and hay.

There stands my barn!

Monument to the past!
Feast for the present!
Song for the future!

From the “The Barn: A Vanishing Landmark in North America” by Eric Arthur and Dudley Witney. Published by Galahad Books in 1972.

If you feel inspired to help save the Olsen barn, please contact Feather River Land Trust via the website, by phone at 530-283-5758, or via email.