ELIOT, Maine — A step back in time, a refuge from the area swell of gentrification, Paul and Helen Goransson’s 260 acres of land off Depot Road will remain pure. They will make sure of it.
The hay, the cows, the morning fog lifting off the grass will stay. And so will a Civil War-era barn they’ve committed themselves to preserving.
For passersby on the rural road, a refreshing change from the industry buildings on Route 236, it’s nearly impossible not to notice the 40-foot by 80-foot timber frame barn currently suspended in the air, subcontractors driving bulldozers and excavators around the property. The barn will be under rehabilitative construction through October.
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Paul and Helen have run Bondgarden Farm since 1985, specializing in hay production and beef. About a year and a half ago, they bought the neighboring 36-acre property of longtime resident Katharine “Kay” Thompson, who had resided on the Broadfields Highover Morgans horse training site since 1975, until she died. Tracing back to some of the earliest settlers in Eliot, Thompson’s residence is known as the 1740 Nathan Bartlett House. The barn being restored by the Goranssons sits to the right of Thompson’s former home.
“This was just in horrific shape,” Paul said of the barn. The couple hired well-known preservationist Arron Sturgis, of Preservation Timber Framing in Berwick. He estimated the barn was constructed between the 1870s and 1880s, based on the style of silo built in its center.
“It’s not really cost-effective to be doing this project, but we are pretty committed to historic preservation,” Paul said. The farm owner was particularly passionate about preserving the original 1800s carpentry, noting as he pointed to the structure, “This is a person’s lifetime.”
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If they had chosen to go the other route, Paul and Helen could have built a “magnificent modern steel barn” for a cost much less than the restoration.
Paul said he acquired Thompson’s 36 acres and its structures because “it’s a vanishing thing in Eliot.”
“The last thing I wanted to see was housing for the elderly out my kitchen window,” he said. Several developers had showed significant interest in the land. “I am very proud we decided not to tear it down. It would have broken my heart.”
The old barns that remain speckled throughout Maine’s farming communities remind of a different time, a snapshot into the state’s agricultural past.
The Goranssons’ barn is lifted approximately 10 feet in the air, and its floor has been blown out. Sturgis said one of the primary issues was water running underneath the old structure and completely rotting the undercarriage. Prior to the start of the restoration project, the Goranssons initially hired Sturgis for a “multi-thousand dollar analysis” of the work that needed to be done.
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Considering Bondgarden Farm produces around 15,000 bales of hay per year, Paul said the expected eventual use of the restored barn as a horse boarding business “dovetails” off the farm concept. He doesn’t want the barn to sit idle once completed.
“I just can’t see tearing it down,” he said. “This is a magnificent view. I think it’s a really important thing to have done in my life.”
Paul and Helen are invested in their land, and the town. A member of the Eliot Historical Society, Helen has written a novel called “Views From Rosemary Hill,” which chronicles the history of the region from before the 1600s to 2010 and focuses on the family of Ralph Bartlett, who grew up in Eliot in 1800s. The book includes a few ghost stories, too.
“People probably look at this and say, ‘This is insane,’” Helen said. “It’s one of those things you need to conserve, or we won’t have any of the old barns anymore.” She said historical buildings are disappearing in the York River area.
Sturgis’ company works all throughout New England mainly on old barns and church steeples. What was particularly special about the Goranssons’ barn was its slate roof, he said, and that was something they really wanted to save.
“Our job is to make it safe and structurally sound and usable,” Sturgis said. “We love working for farmers who are actually farming. A lot of these buildings we restore don’t always have a significant purpose. This one does.”
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Sturgis said during his more than 30 years in historic preservation, he’s lost more barns “than we could ever save.” “It’s alarming,” he said, pointing to state statistics of the dwindling numbers of historic structures.
However, over the last decade, Sturgis said they’ve seen microfarmers, specialty farmers, and young couples taking over older properties exhibiting more of a concern for retaining structural and historic integrity.
“The smaller farms that are peppering New Hampshire and Maine can use these buildings very effectively,” he said. “You can’t buy the tradition that you see in a barn like the Goransson barn.”
Sturgis said the quality and longevity of Paul and Helen’s barn, especially with its slate roof, is unparalleled.
Simply put, it’s saving a piece of history, Sturgis said. “That has inherent value and retains the quality of life that we all enjoy in this area. The landscape is not the same with a new building on it.”
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