BROWNFIELD, Maine — In the quiet western Maine town of Brownfield, a painstakingly restored 1810 barn that survived the great fire of 1947 has been transformed into a vibrant music venue that draws audiences far and wide.
Together with its younger sister, a second barn built in 1996, it’s home to the Stone Mountain Arts Center, which was created by a veteran folk singer.
“If these beams could talk,” says Carol Noonan, a traveling songstress and strummer who bought the property 25 years ago with her husband, Jeff Flagg.
And what a tale the pegs would tell.
The original wooden pegs used to bind the sturdy 205-year-old timber-frame are signed by Bela Fleck, Mavis Staples and Robert Cray, among others. These venue headliners autographed the vintage nails, removed when the barn was taken down for repairs in 2006. It was refurbished piece by piece, joint by joint, and resurrected in 2010.
Noonan was so taken by the renovation process, she wrote about it in “The Barn Song.”
“I will right her … I will make her grand again
I will raise her … I will bring her home again, home again.”
And she has.
Like many barn owners, she was enraptured by this rustic, traditional, very New England building.
“It was this barn that made us buy the house,” said Noonan, who reveres these agrarian structures the way some songwriters admire ships or pine for lost loves.
When she saw the post-and-beam barn hugging the roadside, “I said, ‘I don’t care what the house looks like. I want this property,’” said Noonan. “I fell in love with it.”
Why do barns speak to us now?
“They are a connection to our past and a much simpler time,” said J. Scott Campbell of Maine Mountain Post and Beam in Fryeburg, who restored Noonan’s 200-year-old barn. “You can also feel the soul of an old building. From the way it was constructed by hand, to the generations of use.”
For centuries, barns have been used by farmers to house livestock, farm equipment and more. It’s a space with purpose — where cows were milked, horses kept and other livestock sheltered. Sometimes they still are. But for many barns, the agrarian days have passed.
Now, some barns are being given new purpose with imaginative second lives. People envision themselves toiling, tinkering, creating in barns and are transforming them for new uses. The Stone Mountain Arts Center carries that magic.
“Musicians tell me this is their favorite place to play in the world,” said Noonan.
Barns, it seems, are having a moment.
Across the country, barn weddings are one of the trendiest “I do” destinations. Rustic barn doors are sought-after design elements turning up in homes and restaurants from Maine to Malibu.
Up the coast, in the back woods, by lakes and in villages, barns that survived feasts, famines and fires are being repurposed as art galleries and breweries, and more than a few bakers are firing up ovens in barns old and new.
Every week the Homestead section will slide back the door of these well-crafted, wooden structures ingrained with the allure of New England. Through a weekly story accompanied by a video and photo spread, we aim to bring these historic timepieces into a new light and uncover the story behind each cross tie and sturdy peg. Barns are strong, sturdy and full of promise — just like Maine.
Nine years ago, Noonan, a guitar-playing troubadour who is now 57, decided to take a break from performing at coffee houses across the country and bring the music home.
“I’d come home on the weekends and realize there were no rooms to play. At this time, the State Theatre in Portland wasn’t open,” said Noonan.
Noonan wasn’t impressed by the clubs that were open.
“There was a lack of care. I realized I could do it better at my house,” Noonan said.
The timing was perfect for a change at their house, too. Her husband’s fishing net business, which was run out of the newer barn, was drying up. Local builder Andy Buck, who had created the space in 1996, was asked to refashion the workspace into a concert hall. The timber framer was perplexed — and worried.
“We didn’t know how they were going to pull it off,” said Buck. “It was a bold thing to do … A lot of us were worried it would fail. Who’s going to come to Brownfield for music?”
On opening night, when music fans poured in and bluegrass legend Dr. Ralph Stanley took the stage, Buck’s tune changed.
“It was a magical feeling,” Buck said while standing in the barn last month. “When I built the barn, this was the furthest thing from my mind.”
Now three dramatic windows resembling pine trees punctuate performers on stage. Warm, majestic abbey lights hang from the soaring rafters above. Noonan serves comfort food to 200 patrons seated at cabaret-style tables. The sightlines are unobstructed. The acoustics sound. The feeling is that of a country cathedral.
Though delighted by her success and ability to pull in household names, the music events are not a moneymaker for the couple — they do that as a labor of love. It’s functions held in the same barn spaces, such as weddings, that bring home the bacon. Guests can rent both barns attached by a screened-in breezeway made from a chicken coop.
The original barn — now a lobby, box office and bar — was restored by local barn whisperer Campbell. He took the frame apart, stripped its exterior, cleaned the timber, joints and pegs, and rebuilt it just as it was.
“I tried to save as much as possible,” Campbell said.
Now the antechamber, where guests mingle before a show, is “exactly like the original,” except where there was once hay, there are Oriental rugs. White lights twinkle from rafters, and people congregate in tables over pints were horses and cows once lived.
The atmosphere is cozy, relaxed, warm. And useful.
“How many different lives have been in this building?” said Campbell, examining the ties and boards hand-hewn on the premises. “It’s important this [barn] got saved.”
The couple was brave and crazy enough to do it. The risk paid off.
“We do it because we love it,” said Noonan. “I didn’t want to be on the road anymore … You build it and they will come. And they did.”