Discovering Clay

PotteryPotters have been digging and processing their own clay for millennia. It has only been since the Industrial Revolution, which began in the 1800s, that clay started being sold by suppliers on the market. Before that time potters situated themselves near a good source of clay and always the trade was passed down from generation to generation. In many places such as China, Korea and Great Britain whole families of potters would build small towns near a clay source and the local economy centered on pottery making.

Clay is a smooth soft rock made up of mineral particles as fine as dust. Clay particles are all that remain of rocks such as feldspar after these have weathered and decomposed. Most clay remains at the site where it formed thus making a clay deposit. In its undeveloped state, it is one of the few natural resources that has no perceptible value of its own yet can be transformed into some of the most valued works of art.

Today, many potters caution that it is hardly worth the effort and time to dig your own native clay while others strongly encourage those that are able to take advantage of this abundant resource. A potter can also gain a great deal of practical experience and vastly broaden his or her knowledge by going out and digging one’s own clay and feeling the fulfillment of actually making a pot from the ground up.

Here at our shop quite a number of people ask if we use clay from the Brazos River, which borders our farm. We have been unable to utilize Brazos River clay because of a major lime contamination. A good part of this is due to the high limestone cliffs just above the river and every time it rains more limestone washes down the banks contaminating the very absorbent clay. James Chappell, author of, The Potter’s Complete Book of Clay and Glazes, says, “ While the presence of alkalies can be tolerated, the presence of lime cannot; when such clay is fired, the lime turns into calcium oxide, which will absorb water, expand inside the pot and cause it to crack, flake or chip.”

There are two basic clay bodies, earthenware and stoneware. Earthenware can only be fired up to the temperature range between 1700 degrees (F) and 2000 degrees (F). Because of this it is not waterproof and the finished product can be chipped or scratched easily. Stoneware is much less common than earthenware, yet it is highly sought after for it’s durability and lasting strength. This type of clay can be fired up to 2400 degrees (F) to become vitreous [meaning ‘like a rock’] making it water proof even when left unglazed, thus the name, stoneware.

About four miles from the Northern branch of our Ploughshare school, in Idaho, is a large deposit of kaolin called Helmer kaolin. The mineral kaolin is an extremely refractory clay with a melting point at 3200 degrees (F). It cannot be used alone as a clay body due to its highly nonplastic texture. Because of this it must be combined with other clays to increase its plasticity and lower its maturing temperature. However, this clay is very durable and has a low rate of shrinkage thus making it one of the most sought after ingredients for making pottery found in the United States. We have yet to work with it ourselves but we are looking forward to the possibility of finding a native clay source with which we could supply the needs of our school and craft shop.

Beekeeping: Prevent Your Hive from Swarming

Bee swarm

A swarm of bees.


Cheeeep cheeeeeep.” That was an unusual noise to hear in a beehive. I had just begun beekeeping at the time, and it seemed that the bees were always doing something new. As I opened the hive I heard the sound again. It sounded like a mouse, but it was April, and I did not expect to see mice in the hive at that time.

During winter, bees will cluster in a tight ball around the combs to keep warm, and mice will often move in to make their nests. But the hive was overflowing with bees on this warm spring day, and it didn’t seem like a mouse would find any comfort in that environment.

As I removed the combs in search of the chirping noise, I saw something I had never seen before. On the side of a comb, the bees had built a one-and-a-half inch long cell, which was round and tapered. Something inside was eating its way out of the cell.

Suddenly the chirping noise began again from within the cell. “Help me out,” it seemed to say. Each time it chirped, worker bees on the comb would come running to the cell. Tearing at the cell, they soon opened it, and a bee much larger than all the others crawled out. It was a queen bee!

While I was still trying to determine what was happening, the bees within the hive seemed to get very excited. They began moving around very quickly. About a minute later, half the bees in the hive, together with the old queen, started flying into the air. For just a moment, they hovered over the hive as if to say, “Goodbye,” and then they flew over the trees and were gone. The bees had just swarmed.


Swarming is a honeybee colony’s natural way of producing new colonies. However, as beekeepers, we want to prevent swarming and keep as many bees in our hives as possible. When the hive swarms, it is the older bees that leave—the bees that were bringing in most of the honey. With only young bees left in the hive to take care of a new queen, honey production will decrease, as will your harvest of honey.

Before addressing several methods for swarm prevention, let’s discuss some of the reasons for swarming. This will help us to get a broader perspective on general hive activity and maintenance.

There are two main causes of swarming, both of which are related to the bees’ ability to build comb. First, they will swarm if they have run out of space to build new comb. Secondly, they will swarm if they cannot build comb quickly enough to store the incoming nectar.

In both conditions, the bees will prepare to swarm by building about 15 to 20 queen cells along the edges of the combs. Since the average life span of a queen is two to three years, the building of new queen cells is not a part of normal everyday hive activity. So if you see queen cells in a hive, it is a sure sign that either the queen has died or that the hive is preparing to swarm.

Queen Cells

Queen Cells at Various Stages of Development

After the queen cells have been built, the queen will lay an egg in each cell, which will hatch three days later as larvae. Worker bees feed each larva a high protein substance called royal jelly, and after four days of feeding, the larva spins a cocoon.

Sixteen days after the eggs are laid, the new queens will start rubbing their wings together, which makes the chirping sound mentioned above, and that warns the mother queen that it’s time to leave the hive. The new queens will then chew their way out of the cells. At first the new queens will search through the hive for other queens. When they meet, the queens will fight to determine which one will dominate the hive, and the strongest queen will kill the other queens with a fatal sting.

As soon as the new queens start hatching, the mother queen and approximately half the bees will swarm out of the hive. Initially, they will search for a temporary landing site, such as under the eaves of a house, that offers some protection from wind and rain.

When they land, they will cluster into a ball and will usually spend three to four days at that site. Scout bees will then leave the cluster in search of a place to build a new hive. This could be any number of places, including a birdhouse, an old hot water heater, the eaves of a house or inside a hollow portion of a tree.

Once the scouts have found a suitable location, they will return to the cluster and signal the prospective new location to the other bees. The swarm of bees will then fly to the new location to decide whether it is suitable. If it is, they’ll begin building a new hive. If it’s not found to be suitable, the scouts will be sent out again to repeat the process.

As beekeepers, one of our jobs is to provide the bees with ample space in the hive. In the springtime, when flowers are producing the most nectar, it is especially important to check your hives at least once every two weeks to see how fast the bees are building comb. The bees can build one comb a night if there has been a substantial amount of rain, and if plenty of nectar-producing flowers are blossoming.

If the bees continue at this rate, they will soon run out of room to store the honey that they are bringing in. Then they will begin to make preparations to swarm. As I mentioned earlier, you can tell that a hive is preparing to swarm by the presence of queen cells. If I find queen cells when inspecting my hives, I will remove them by cutting them off of the comb. This will temporarily halt the swarming process, but then I also need to address the reason that they were preparing to swarm in the first place.

How to Prevent Swarming

When I find a hive that has begun preparing to swarm, I will monitor the hive and try to make sure the bees always have enough space to build at least three combs. If the bees start to run out of space in the hive, there are a couple of things I will do.

First, I will harvest the combs that are filled with honey. This immediately creates additional space in the hive. If at this time the bees are still building more queen cells, indicating that they will swarm, then I will remove two or three combs of brood from the thriving hive and place them in a weaker hive—a hive that contains fewer bees and proportionally fewer brood combs and honeycombs. This supplies the weaker hive with more bees and more honey, and can stimulate the queen in that weaker hive to lay more eggs each day, further strengthening the hive. At the same time, this frees up more space in the stronger hive for building comb.

If the bees still exhibit a tendency to swarm, I will next switch the location of the strong hive with that of a weaker hive. Being creatures of habit, bees that have left the hive to forage will return to the place their hive was when they left it. Bees that had been in the stronger hive, will end up in the weaker hive, thus strengthening it while reducing the bee population in the stronger hive.


Sometimes, despite my best efforts my bees have still swarmed. Beekeeping has its challenges. As a beekeeper, I continue to enjoy learning about and discovering the different happenings in the life of a hive.

Related Information

This article was adapted from an article that originally appeared in volume 2, issue #1 of the SustainLife journal.


Featured in Mother Earth News

Digging in the GardenAfter a recent first-time visit to the Ploughshare campus and Homestead Heritage community, Bryan Welch wrote the insightful article:

Homestead Heritage: Self-Sufficient Living in Action

which was published in the June/July 2013 issue of Mother Earth News. Bryan is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Mother Earth News.

In the article, Bryan describes the desire he had as a child to be Amish. He was inspired by their farming with draft animals, their growing of their own food and their modest, cooperative lifestyle. He describes the Homestead Heritage community and gives a picture of what you will experience on a visit: “industrious activity, friendly faces and a pervading sense of happy people doing work they enjoy.” Bryan recognizes the beauty and importance of a traditional lifestyle that emphasizes simplicity, modesty and working in close relationship with the land and in harmony with one another. From his perspective, Homestead Heritage is a “genuine example of a self-sufficient group of people providing sustenance to each other.”






Homestead Fair – Thanksgiving Weekend

Homestead Fair

November 23-25, 2012
Friday and Saturday, 9 A.M. To 9 P.M.
& Sunday, 12 noon to 5 P.M.

25th Annual Homestead Fair

This year, The Ploughshare together with Homestead Heritage is cosponsoring the 25th annual Homestead Fair on Thanksgiving Weekend, Friday – Sunday, November 23-25, 2012. We invite you to attend.


Activities for the Entire Family

Everyone in the family can watch, learn about and participate in a wide variety of activities, including milking a goat, making soap, helping to raise a timber frame barn, preparing and spinning cotton into yarn or watching a master craftsman fashion a fine Windsor chair straight from a rough log. Other activities include hands-on projects, sheepdog herding, horse farming, pottery, blacksmithing, woodworking, quilting, weaving, spinning, basketry, boot making, cheese making and much, much more.

Great Food

Sample the multicultural dishes from our food court—from hamburgers to Israeli falafels, sourdough pizzas, tacos and gorditas, egg rolls and more, all home made fresh from the farm. Enjoy a delicious sorghum pecan ice-cream cone, apple cider donuts, or a bag of kettle corn while touring our farm on a horse-drawn hay wagon.

Hands-on Activities

Children especially enjoy the hands-on activities, in which they can learn to:

  • make a candle
  • weave a basket
  • build a bird feeder
  • make a toy sailboat
  • weave a coaster
  • hand-hammer a brass spoon
  • shell popcorn
  • braid a dog leash
  • or many others

Adults can try their hand, too, and one of the high points of the Fair is parents working with their children on these projects.

Seminars on Sustainability

The Fair also features a number of in-depth and practical seminars on sustainability. Most seminars last about 30-40 minutes, with a time for questions afterward. Topics are still being finalized in preparation for the Fair, but the preliminary list includes:

  • Seminars on important aspects of sustainable culture
  • Small-scale family farming
  • Sustainable gardening
  • Raising and caring for backyard chickens and other poultry
  • Beekeeping
  • Food preservation
  • Cheese and bread making
  • Sustainable energy
  • Sustainable building with local materials
  • Creative writing workshop, and more.

Music and Singing

Lively and moving music is a central part of the Fair, with our bluegrass musicians, our Homestead orchestra and adult’s and children’s choirs.

Unique Opportunities for Holiday Shopping

You will also find unique opportunities for holiday shopping with a great variety of unique hand-crafted items, from soaps to leather goods to pottery, quilts and other products made by our craftsmen and children.


Parking passes—good for all three days of the Fair—are available for $10.00 per vehicle on site, or you can pre-order them for $7.00 online. There is no entrance fee.

More Information about the Fair

For more information, including driving directions, camping and lodging information, food and events at the fair, visit the Homestead Fair website at:

We hope to see you at the fair.

Learning to Make Hard Cheeses

Hard Cheese Class

Cheeses that each person learns to make and takes home at the end of our hard cheesemaking class. Clockwise, starting at top right, the cheeses are: Colby Jack, Caraway Gouda, Parmesan, Chipotle Cheddar and Pepper Jack

My wife recently attended a class on making hard cheeses at The Ploughshare. Below is her report on the class:

Caraway Gouda Cheese

My wife holding the Caraway Gouda cheese that she made in the class. Once it has been turned and pressed in the cheese press several more times, then soaked in a salt brine overnight and aged for about two months, it will be ready to eat.

After having made soft cheeses at home I was ready to forge ahead and learn to make hard cheeses, so this past Saturday I took a class. Rebekah (one of the instructors) began our class with a very informative and thorough discussion on how milk becomes cheese that even included a brief chemistry/biology lesson on pH levels and bacteria. She then demonstrated making two types of cheese starter culture—Mesophilic and Thermophilic. She moved smoothly through each step, describing the varieties and types of cheeses, the cultures and the different processes used to make cheese. She shared stories from her own experiences along with examples of what to do and what not to do.

Cheesmaking class

Rebekah, one of the instructors, explaining about the natural rind on Parmesan cheese.

We made six types of cheeses in the class: Chipotle Cheddar, Caraway Gouda, Parmesan, Colby, Pepper Jack and Monterey Jack.

Transferring curds into the cheese press

Transferring curds into the cheese press to make Colby Jack cheese.

Altogether eight people took the class. A mother and son made Pepper Jack together, another team made Parmesan, and everyone else picked one type to make themselves. I chose the Caraway Gouda. We donned our aprons and with our recipe book in hand, took our places at the stoves. As the gallons of milk heated up in gleaming stainless steel stock pots, we chatted and peeked into each other’s pots to see how our cheeses were coming along. Rebekah and Robin bustled about us, answering questions, checking our progress, feeling the curds and giving help wherever it was needed. Although the step–by–step instructions in the recipes were easy to follow, it was reassuring to have such knowledgeable instructors nearby the first time we made these cheeses.

Bandaging the cheese

Wrapping the cheese with cheesecloth in preparation for aging it. Rebekah also discussed several other ways to prepare the cheese before aging.

By lunchtime, the milk had turned into curds and whey. We packed the curds into molds, placed them under the wooden cheese presses, added weights to the levers and waited 30 minutes. Then we pulled the cheese out of the molds, flipped it, repacked it in the molds and pressed it again for 30 minutes. We repeated this step several more times, and the curds solidified more and more into a beautiful round of cheese. Since the cheese needs to age for two months, we left them with Rebekah and Robin. But we all took home five wedges of the various cheeses that a previous class had made. In about two months, another hard cheese class will reap the results of our efforts.

Wrapping up the cheese

Cutting up the cheese and packaging it to bring home at the end of the class.

We left at the end of the day with our cheese-making manual, a bag of delicious cheeses and the inspiration and confidence to make hard cheeses at home. With broad smiles, Rebekah and Robin encouraged us with, “Call us if you need any help!”

18th Annual Sweet Sorghum Festival – A Photo Essay

Nearly 1,500 people came to our 18th Annual Labor Day Open House and Sweet Sorghum Festival yesterday. Here is a photo-essay of the event along with a description of a few of the activities.

Making Sorghum Syrup

Beginning at 3:30 a.m., about a dozen young men began harnessing mules. Using hay wagons, they hauled sorghum canes, which they had cut and loaded the prior day, up to the sorghum press.

Sorghum Press

Mule-powered Sorghum Press

This sorghum press is considered a “third generation” press, based on its design. It was originally built in the late 1800’s or the early 1900’s. The press, or mill, as it is also called, is powered by a team of mules. The long boom to which the mules are hitched turns several vertically-mounted rollers within the press. Young men feed sorghum canes, a few at a time, into the press. The rollers pull the canes into and through the press, crushing them and releasing the sap. The sap drains into one of three stainless steel holding tanks adjacent to the press, while the “chews” (the crushed canes) are slowly ejected out of the press.

Pressing Sorghum

Pressing sorghum with a mule-powered sorghum press

After filling a holding tank, we let the sorghum sap settle for about two hours before processing it further.  Having three tanks lets us fill one tank, while sap in the second tank settles, and while sap in the third tank is slowly piped downhill to a wood-fired copper cooking tray, where it is cooked into syrup.

The cooking tray is essentially a large, flat rectangular pan, partitioned with metal baffles every few inches in an alternating pattern.  Sorghum sap is gravity fed through a pipe slowly and continuously into the near end of the cooking tray.

A wood fire beneath the tray heats and boils the sap, while it is guided slowly through the tray. As you can see from the steam, a lot of water is boiled off during the cooking process, and by the time the liquid reaches the far end of the tray, it has been distilled into syrup, which occupies about one-tenth it’s original volume as sap. While cooking the syrup, we use skimming tools to skim off impurities, and we slowly guide the syrup along between the baffles. It takes about 30-45 minutes for thin, greenish sap entering the near end of the tray to exit the far end of the tray as a thick, golden-brown syrup.

Cooking sorghum sap to make syrup.

Cooking sorghum sap to make syrup.

Inside the sorghum house, the finished sorghum syrup flows from the copper wood-fired cooking tray through cheese cloth. After filtering the syrup multiple times through cheesecloth and skimming off the foam, we bottle it up into jars.

Sorghum Syrup

Some of the bottled sorghum syrup.

Sustainability Seminars

Meanwhile in the LaRue barn, The Ploughshare gave two seminars, one on sustainable gardening and a second on beekeeping. Both seminars were very informative and very well-attended.

Sustainability Seminars

There was a lot of interest in our sustainable gardening and beekeeping seminars.

Grinding Blue Corn

Year-round, we grind wheat and other grains in our gristmill. In addition to this, Joe Claborn set up a portable mill for grinding cornmeal and demonstrated how it worked. This portable mill is powered by a single-cylinder “hit-or-miss” engine. The engine uses a centrifugal mechanical governor, which adjusts how often the engine fires in order to keep a nearly constant speed (rpm) whether the engine is under load or idling. Ground corn is fed into a sifter that uses two screens to separate the corn into fine cornmeal (for making cornbread), coarse cornmeal (for making grits) and chaff.

A single-cylinder hit-or-miss engine powers a gristmill for grinding corn

A single-cylinder hit-or-miss engine powers a gristmill for grinding corn.

Kiln Opening Sale

As we’ve discussed previously, we recently finished building a wood-fired pottery kiln. Our potters had their first “Kiln Opening Sale” today with lots of beautiful pottery. (We hope to have more kiln opening sales in the future. If you would like more information about them, please give us a call at 254-754-9600 or leave a comment below.)

Kiln Opening Sale

After firing our wood-fired kiln during the weekend, we had our first kiln opening sale.


Fiber Crafts

In our fiber crafts shop, there was a lot of activity. One spinner was using a conventional flyer wheel to spin cotton, which we had grown on our farm, into yarn. She intends to weave her cotton yarn into cloth, then sew it into a garment.

Several other people were spinning cotton on tahklis. The tahkli is a small supported spindle (similar to a drop spindle, except that you support it rather than drop it) that works well for spinning cotton. Tahklis are inexpensive and very portable, and someone with experience can spin on the tahkli nearly as fast and as effectively as someone spinning at a wheel.

Spinning cotton on a tahkli

Practicing spinning cotton on a tahkli.

Make-Your-Own Crafts

Many children (and parents/grandparents along with them) enjoyed our make-your-own crafts.  Children hammered out brass spoons. They also wove coasters, shaped clay “pinch pots” and built toy boats. I particularly enjoyed seeing the faces of the children using spokeshaves to carve wooden spatulas for the kitchen.

Making a brass spoon

Hammering out a brass spoon.


Thank You

Thank you for coming out and enjoying the day with us.


As always, if you have questions about our crafts, seminars or other activities, we would like to hear from you.  You can leave us a comment here, or call us at 254-754-9600.


18th Annual Sweet Sorghum Festival

Cooking Sorghum Syrup

Cooking Sorghum Syrup

Join us on Monday, September 3, 2012 for the 18th Annual Sweet Sorghum Festival at Brazos de Dios. The festival will be from 10 a.m until 5 p.m, and there is no admission fee.

Watch as we make sweet sorghum syrup—from pressing the raw cane with a horse-powered mill to cooking the juice into rich, golden brown syrup. Sample some sorghum syrup on  freshly baked cornbread made from stoneground cornmeal!


At this year’s festival:

  • Horsedrawn Hayrides
  • Outdoor Barbeque
  • Freshly Cranked Ice Cream
  • Demonstrations of Various Fine Hand-crafts
  • Various Make-Your-Own Activities for children
  • Free Seminars on Sustainable Living
  • Special Music at Noon

About Sorghum Syrup

Over 70 years ago, sorghum syrup was a common sight on the dinner tables of rural Texas. Many farmers grew a small patch of sorghum in their fields. At harvest time, they brought their cane to a neighboring farm that had a mill, and the families worked together pressing cane and cooking syrup.

Pressing Sorghum

Pressing Sorghum

At Brazos de Dios, our annual sorghum harvest preserves this community tradition. We hand cut the 10- to 14-foot-tall canes and haul them from the various family farms to our sorghum mill. Here, we feed the raw cane through a 100-year-old horse-drawn press. After squeezing the cane, we allow the juice to settle 2-3 hours before channeling it downhill through underground pipes to the sorghum house where we cook it over a wood-fired furnace.

The green juice bubbles and boils its way through the channels of the hot, 12-foot-long copper pan. After the excess water evaporates, the juice reaches the end of the pan as a thick, sweet, golden brown syrup ready for bottling. Be sure to try a sample of this year’s syrup at the sorghum mill or at our restored homestead gristmill!

Driving Directions

The sorghum festival is hosted at the Homestead Heritage Traditional Craft Village at Brazos de Dios, which is located 5 miles north of Waco.

Take I-35 to Elm Mott Exit 343; go west on FM 308 for 3 miles, then north on FM 933 for 1 1/2 miles. Turn west onto Halbert Lane and proceed a half mile straight ahead to the entrance.

View Larger Map


For further information, call 254/754-9600.

Trip Report: Ax-Making at Gransfors Forge

Tools Caleb made in the Class

These are the finished axes and laminated knife blades I made in the class.

Gransfors has a forge, a pottery shop, a museum and a cafe. The first morning there, I took some time to wander around the shops and the museum. I watched and talked to one of the ax makers who has worked there for over twenty-five years.

Gransfors Museum

Tour of the museum. Gabriel Branby (left) is the CEO of Gransfors.

They have had an unusually cool and wet spring in Sweden, and everything is very green. The flowers are gorgeous.

Gransfors Bruks

The creek that runs behind and forms the border of the Gransfors property.

In the ax-making workshop that I’m taking, there are eight students, including me.  The other students are from England, Denmark, France, Wales, Sweden and Germany.  We are quite a cross-section from our occupations also, ranging from computer techs to military civil engineers and from gardeners (what we would call lawn work in the U.S.) to blacksmiths.

Ax-making class

The ax-making class.

Lars Enander is teaching the class. Lars is a native Swede. His teaching method is European in that he wants to let you figure things out on your own. He kind of gets you headed in the right direction and lets you go without a lot of explanation. But he is also very willing to answer questions if you ask. He is a very knowledgeable and helpful instructor and went out of his way to make sure that I learned a lot during the class.

Lars Enander

Lars Enander, our instructor, preparing for the next session of the ax-making class.

Lars started the class by giving us each a bar of 3 1/2 cm x 2 cm steel to make a slitter that we will use to punch the eye of our ax later in the class. We also made a set hot-cut from a piece of 33 mm x 37 mm bar. I also had time to make a drift. I also started making a candle holder and a rose while waiting for the other students to finish.

Making slitter

Here I am, making a slitter that I will later use when making axes in the class.

July 12: While the other students were finishing their hot-cuts and tongs, I finished making the candle holder.  When everyone had finished the tongs that we made to hold our axes while we work on them, Lars showed us how to make a laminated knife blade by folding the end of a piece of mild steel flat bar (approximately 1/8 x 3/4″ flat) over 2 1/2″ or so and placing a piece of carbon steel the same width and thickness and two inches long in between.

Tool racks

A view of the tool racks.

We left a little space in the fold of the mild steel that will be welded and then drawn for the tang. We then forge-welded the “sandwich” and cut the bar off at an angle, removing the end of the welded pieces to remove anything that did not weld. The purpose of this exercise was mainly to give us practice forge welding carbon steel between mild steel, which we will be doing in making our axes.

Laminated knife blades.

July 13: I made three knifes before lunch, and Lars asked if there was anything he could help me make, such as tools I might need. I told him that I would like to make a scythe, but I didn’t know if that was something we could do. He said that he should know something about that . . . . So I made a couple of tools that would be used when shaping the scythe and started a small scythe, which I finished today. It was only about 18″ long and not perfect, but it works, and I learned a lot and had a lot of fun making it.

Scythe blade

The scythe blade that I made during the class.

July 16: The last three days we have spent making axes! The method we learned is very old and was used in times past, when steel was hard to make and not readily available. They would make the body of the ax out of wrought iron and laminate a piece of steel into the edge, which is the only place that needs to be hard.

Seating the edge steel

Seating the edge steel into the mild steel of the ax head.

Thank you to everyone who contributed toward this trip.

Caleb Nolen

The LaRue Barn

This article is an excerpt from the Spring 2012 issue of the SustainLife journal.
The LaRue Barn

The LaRue Barn

We found the LaRue barn through a phone call from a woman in northern New Jersey who had heard about our work of moving and restoring barns. She wanted to know if we would possibly want to move an old barn that was in danger of being demolished to make way for a new suburban development.

At the time this was only our second barn to move, so we did not know entirely what we were getting into, except that we wanted to restore more barns. As it turned out, this unique barn was originally built about 1760 in the northern New Jersey town of Mahwah, close to the New York state border on Route 202, an old Colonial road that runs from Boston to Philadelphia, skirting to the west around New York City. It is what is known as an English-framed barn, though the LaRue family who built it was of French Huguenot descent. The timbers are oak and chestnut, felled by ax from the surrounding virgin forest and hewed by hand. It was moved in 1876 to where we found it, about a half mile from its original location. Moving barns was a common occurrence, as they were meant to last for centuries and could be readily unpegged, disassembled and relocated to another farm.

Crooked Braces

As you look overhead in the LaRue barn you will see unusual curved and dovetailed wind braces connecting the long overhead tie beams to the outside wall posts. These are called “crooked braces” because they were cut from the crook or curved limb of a tree. This feature is unusual to find in an American barn because there was so much good, straight wood available for building timbers that it was not necessary to use such curved pieces of wood. The use of such tree “crucks” indicates that the barn was probably built by a barn framer who learned his trade in Europe, where crucks were often used due to the shortage of straight timber.

Crooked braces

Crooked braces (cruks)

A Role in the American Revolution

Early in its history, the LaRue barn played a role in the American Revolution. During the cold winter of 1780, General George Washington spent two days at the LaRue house, and undoubtedly Continental soldiers under General Washington spent nights in this barn. The soldiers would have been part of a Virginia regiment of “light horse” cavalry under the command of Colonel George Baylor, and were also known as Washington’s “Life Guard,” soldiers whose job it was to protect the commander-in-chief. They accompanied Washington wherever he traveled. It was not far from this barn in 1778, when temporarily detached from the main army, that Colonel Baylor and his cavalrymen were sleeping in barns and were massacred by a British surprise attack in the middle of the night. It was part of a deadly rivalry fomented by a young British officer and spy, Major John Andre, who was later hanged as Benedict Arnold’s accomplice in attempting to sell the important American fort of West Point to the British.

We can imagine these soldiers’ conversation about the war and their families as they settled down in the barn loft for the night. But one thought that definitely did not cross their minds was the fact that one day, over two hundred and twenty years later, some young men from a place called Texas would come to New Jersey and dismantle the barn they were sleeping in and move and rebuild it nearly two thousand miles away—much less that they would fly through the air to get there! We can also most likely claim that “George Washington’s horse slept here!”

We have placed the LaRue barn with a log cabin in a small homestead setting. They are a combination of homestead elements from different times and places: a 1760 New Jersey barn, an 1830 Missouri cabin, an 1860 New York smokehouse, an 1890 New York silo and a 1930 Texas windmill. Yet somehow they all complement one another. If you can, visit in the late afternoon as the sunset casts a golden light across the fields and over the homestead.

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