Of useful work and community

men raising a barn
People still do raise barns. Photograph by Rebecca Siegel licensed Creative Commons.

In the spring of 1941, a farmer named Victor Zimmerman of Seipstown, Pennsylvania, lost his barn to a fire. This was, sadly, no unusual occurrence. A barn stuffed with hay and straw is a tinderbox waiting for a spark, and fires were a continual risk in farming communities. When, one month later, thirty-four of Victor Zimmerman’s neighbors showed up to help build him a new one, that too was only to be expected. But the days of the barn raising were numbered. Soon enough that neighborly work would be something only the Amish did, and for the rest of us merely a symbol of community rather than its expression. Indeed by 1941 it was already a curiosity to many people. And so the Allentown Morning Call sent a reporter out to rural Lehigh County to cover it.

That, ironically, is the only way I know about Victor Zimmerman’s barn raising: it was already a curiosity. Practically all the other hundreds or thousands of similar gatherings that took place across Pennsylvania in the preceding couple of centuries are long forgotten, but Zimmerman’s came at the end of a dying tradition, after decades of upheaval and Depression, under the shadow of global war. It made good reading—so much so that seventy years later, Elaine Bogert of the Weisenberg/Lowhill (Township) Historical Society ran across the newspaper’s account of the day and republished it in the society’s newsletter.1 And then one day my father was idly googling his grandfather’s name, looking for genealogical Easter eggs, and found the article.

My great-grandfather, you see, was the contractor hired to build the barn. Victor Walbert, Builder and Contractor, Maxatawny, Pennsylvania. He died before I was born, but I have some of his tools, and use them every time I build a chair. This article was the first thing I ever learned about him that wasn’t a family story. So what would otherwise be merely a charming slice of life from the middle of the last century turns out to be personal.

But here’s the slice of life, anyhow.

Word had gone out on the last Wednesday of June that the timbers were ready, and shortly after sunrise Friday morning—about 4:30 a.m.—Zimmerman’s neighbors began arriving. (Daylight savings time wouldn’t be implemented until eight months later, after Pearl Harbor.) The men didn’t say much except for an occasional joke in Pennsylvania Dutch but, the Morning Call’s reporter observed, “joined in the work with a vim.”

By noon all of the main timbers had been put into place and all of the beams that were to hold the haymows were carried to the scene and lifted into place. So were the ladders leading to the haymows and the main skeleton was completed with the upper part of the structure well advanced.

By late afternoon, when most of the farmers were compelled to return to their own farms to feed and water cattle and attend to other chores, the entire framework had been completed and the thing actually looked like a barn. The work… had progressed to a point where… the framework was in readiness to receive its coat of weatherboarding and roofing.

Those last steps would be done by my great-grandfather and his employees, who had also prepared the timbers and managed the day’s work. This was old-style barn construction with pegged dovetail joints, and all the parts were ready in advance, “as though they had been fitted together beforehand and then laid aside to be put together like a jig-saw puzzle…. although none of the pieces was numbered or marked in any way one could not mistake just where they belonged.” Zimmerman‘s neighbors were merely the crew, recompensed for their work only by the beer and soda kept cool in the farmer’s springhouse and, of course, by the dinner prepared by Mrs. Zimmerman with the help of a dozen women.

There was roast chicken, stuffing and browned potatoes, gravy, home-dried corn, string beans, lettuce, lima beans, creamed cabbage, peas, bread and butter and at least a dozen different jellies, all just seasoned right for the tastes of Lehigh Countians. And that wasn’t all. There were tarts and pies of many varieties and there were cakes of the angels food and devils food variety and also other types of white and chocolate cakes, not to mention the crumb and raised cakes.

I hope you already ate.

What’s interesting to me about all this? Beyond the dinner menu, I mean.

My great-grandfather’s competence, for one. You want it, what, eighty feet by twenty? Sure. French roof? Sure. I doubt any formal plans were drawn up; it was just a barn, right? Just a barn if you’ve built a hundred of them. Then show up with truckloads of timbers, none marked, all perfectly fit, and manage a crew of volunteers to put the thing together. I have been a volunteer and managed volunteers. The former takes a willing and obedient worker and the latter a light but firm touch. It is not an easy thing. But it seems to have gotten done, all the time. So raise a glass to a contractor who made himself part of the neighborhood instead of just invading it, making his mark and taking off. One of these days when I’m up home in Lancaster I need to make a detour into Lehigh County and see if I can’t find the barn he built, which was still standing as late as 2011.

That these were my people, for another. The entire operation was conducted in Pennsylvania Dutch, but note, please, the beer in Victor Zimmerman’s springhouse. These were not Amish but high-church, beer-drinking Pennsylvania Dutchmen. My people! I got a little sentimental the first time I read it. And then, frankly, I got a little angry, the way you do when you realize your inheritance has been pissed away on Carnival Cruises and lottery tickets. I could have had twelve hours’ hard work with my neighbors, the Mudderschprooch (mother tongue, which I never learned), and one hell of a chicken dinner, and instead I got… what? Lunch meetings in corporate-speak English and a shrink-wrapped sandwich? I got sold out. I could have been Pennsylvania Dutch; instead I’m just white people.

Third, the reporter’s nostalgia-colored glasses. He seems to have wondered that such a thing as a barn raising could still happen. “Gradually, but almost miraculously,” he wrote, “the skeleton of the new barn took shape and the structure began to grow upward almost as though it were a plant and some magic rain was sprinkled upon the seed.” The bee “is actual proof that the spirit of helpfulness is not extinct and is an object lesson in loyal cooperation that has been the desire in the national defense league.” (Emphasis added.) Unable to restrain himself from another comparison to the changing world of 1941, he noted that “There was no strike on yesterday’s job. The nearest thing to it was a sit-down on the grass just after the big dinner, but it was a rest of only ten minutes.” Every paragraph brimmed with vocabulary of helpfulness and willing work. And he transcribed more of the neighbors’ Pennsylvania Dutch than was strictly necessary; even “just seasoned right” suggested that this was a place apart.

The truth, obviously, was complicated. The truth is always more complicated than it sounds in newspaper articles. You don’t get helpful neighbors without there being great mutual need. You don’t get neighbors able and willing to work hard that many hours of a day unless they have hard, demanding lives, unless you, too, have a hard and demanding life. Getting up in time to do your chores, eat breakfast and be ready to raise a barn “shortly after sunrise” is no picnic. And yet: You can make it feel like one nevertheless. And yet, again: You don’t learn to make it feel like one unless you have to.

And so, fourth: My life has been too damn easy.

Fifth, that Victor Zimmerman had thirty-four near neighbors who not only were “kind-hearted” people willing to help but had actual carpentry skills and so could be of real, practical use. It is one thing—and very nice—to have neighbors who will water your plants when you go on vacation and drive you to the doctor when you sprain your ankle. It is another to have neighbors who can clamber up the frame of a barn and hammer nails straight.

Sixth, very closely related: that Mrs. Zimmerman had twelve near neighbors who could, working together, help her prepare a meal for fifty-six. (Mr. and Mrs. Zimmerman, thirty-four men helping outside, twelve women helping inside, my great-grandfather and seven professional carpenters.) I consider myself an excellent cook, but cooking for fifty-six is another matter entirely. Consider that the Zimmerman farm already had most of this food on hand. How many chickens is that, and did they kill them that morning? How many pounds of potatoes? How do you manage the pots and the stove? How do you keep that much food hot until you serve it? To cook a meal for fifty-six you need, again, not just kind-hearted neighbors but competent ones. (You also need fifty-six neighbors willing all to eat the same thing for dinner.)

It’s hard to read a story like this and not find yourself wishing there were things like barn raisings today. Of course there are things like barn raisings: community park cleanups, food drives, GoFundMe campaigns for someone with cancer. But a park cleanup is not quite the same as a building that will still be standing seventy years hence, and giving money is not quite the same as giving work. The reporter described Victor Zimmerman’s neighbors as “kindhearted.” I doubt they were any more kindhearted than anybody else, and I don’t think there is any historically unique shortage of kindness today. It’s not the motive that’s missing, you might say, but the means and the opportunity. We don’t know our neighbors and we have no practical means of helping them. We don’t know each other well enough to know what’s needed, don’t have enough in common to understand it or be able to provide it, and are too picky about our preferences to want someone else doing it. And even if we got past all those problems, what can we do? We’ve outsourced to professionals practically all of the work we might do for one another. We don’t take care of ourselves, so how in hell are we supposed to care for one another?

What that long-ago reporter called “kindheartedness” seems to me less the root of neighborly assistance than the flower of neighborly cooperation—and specifically cooperative work. The important thing is to be of use. It may be at times that words are enough, and we should be willing to offer them. It may be at times that unskilled labor is enough, and surely nobody should be too proud to clean a toilet. But it seems to me that if we all knew how to work—to do really useful, practical work—we could all be much better neighbors.

  1. “Neighbors of Seipstown Farmer Whose Barn Was Leveled by Fire Pitch In and Erect New Structure,” June 28, 1941, republished in The Weisenberg/Lowhill Historical Society News 32 (April 2010).