Discernibly old, its age has eluded records for decades, a mystery more to blame on time itself than vanity. Best guess is somewhere around 93, though exactitudes are left to those there when the first nails were driven through its wooden frame, before its wonder years disappeared and its image became the subject of scorn.
That all changed last month, when the town demolished the barn at the Essex Tree Farm complex after years of searching for a way to rehab the failing structure. Despite its status as a state-recognized historic building, little fanfare accompanied the barn’s farewell.
Even in its heyday, the two-story barn was somewhat unremarkable. A concise 1994 memo from then-town clerk Rosa Lee Guillette explained its two upper floors once housed poultry, then drying racks, while the basement lodged cows, later giving way to seed process equipment – not exactly the Holy Grail.
But the barn’s utility made up for its lack of pizzazz, and its impact reached far beyond the town line, becoming the go-to source during Vermont’s 20th-century push for reforestation.
The farm’s history can be traced back to 1909, when the first state forest opened in Plainfield. At the time, the forest relied on seedling imported from Germany, underscoring the need for a nursery closer to home. Thus, in the spring of 1922, the Tree Farm was established in Essex.
Two years later, the farm transplanted a total of two million seedlings at a cost of around $1.25 per thousand, according to a biennial report from the commissioner of forestry around that time. The report explains the spot was well adapted for nursery practice.
“The soil is light and easily worked, city water is available, the nursery is within the zone of free collection by the express company, labor is abundant and spring work may be started much earlier than at the higher elevations,” reads the report. Plus, it wasn’t too far from Fort Ethan Allen, where the stables constantly churned a necessary component: manure.
A vital cog in the Tree Farm operation was the barn, whose windows – two dozen split in rows between long planks of novelty siding – allowed the sun to throw light onto trays full of pinecones. Known as flaring, this technique heated the cones until they opened to release their seeds. The farm then used them for plantings on location.
“They were into the localvore movement before it was popular,” joked Devin Coleman, a state architectural historian who called the barn a “core” to the farm’s legacy.
Below the windows sat a furnace room, seemingly an afterthought the way its small roof jostled for position against a crunched piece of siding, and lining the barn’s gabled-roof peak were three skinny metal ventilators.
Caught at just the right angle, they looked like locomotives passing through the sky.
Over 30,000 buildings are listed on the Vermont State Register of Historic Places, including 107 properties from Essex, as of 2015. The Tree Farm was the most recent local addition to the register, though the property’s historic value depends on who you ask.
In 1999, Robert McCullough, a University of Vermont professor who teaches a graduate program on historic preservation, confirmed the Tree Farm was indeed an “interesting and productive place in its day.”
“But it has been out of production for some time, and integrity may be an issue,” he wrote in an email then. “As a practical matter, if the state doesn’t continue using it as a nursery (and I doubt anyone is going to force them to), the land itself has only marginal significance.”
Town officials seemed equally hesitant to award too much value. Fearing it would face resistance from the state’s historic arm if it needed to remove any of the structures, the town questioned the state’s reference to the property’s historic nature during negotiations for the farm’s sale in the early 2010s, asking if there was any documentation to support the claim.
“There is a significant difference between something having historical value and just being old,” wrote town attorney Bill Ellis in a 2010 email.
But a letter from the Vermont Agency of Transportation a decade earlier notes the barn is a good example of a “specific agricultural building type.”
While not exactly a glowing endorsement, the letter says the barn’s age and unaltered appearance was enough to qualify it for the State or National Register of Historic Places, even after suburban development along Old Colchester Road had somewhat compromised the building’s “setting.”
Coleman said the town’s pushback represents a common misconception about the state’s register: Once a building is listed there, it can’t be touched.
“That’s not really true,” Coleman said. “The listing is a documentation of the historical significance of the property. With that information, then a decision can be made.”
Charles and Lumina LaBelle conveyed the land to the state on Aug. 20, 1963. The state ran the nursery as a tree farm until 1995, when it closed after three years of operating at a deficit. Selectboard minutes from that year show a presentation by the state reported sales from the farm dropped to 257,000 seedlings in its final fiscal year, down from two million transplants 70 years before.
A handful of town residents expressed concern over the state’s closure, prompting a committee that eventually proposed the town lease the 100-acre property. The town inked that deal at the turn of the millennium, and a decade later, paid $186,700 to own the land outright.
Since then, the town has considered how to remedy the failing barn, implementing temporary fixes while it considered other options, like rehabbing the building for storage, a hot commodity in the municipal world.
But a structural engineer confirmed a full-on fix wasn’t worth the cost, nor were any other potential remedies.
“The building was not, by any sense, structurally sound,” public works director Dennis Lutz said.
A re-examination of the building last fall showed it had given out at the center, one of the walls buckling to the point where any entry was unsafe. The town constructed a chain fence around the barn to prevent any unwanted visitors, since vandals broke in several times over the years to do “whatever vandals normally do,” Lutz said.
In the end, costs to fix the building outpaced the price to take it down, so the town contracted an environmental firm to manage its removal last month. Now, a layer of dirt delineates the former foundation, a spool of chain-link fence lying nearby.
The town plans to restore the site to a grassy, open area. At least for now. Lutz is now working on next year’s budget, and said the town should consider the best use for that site.
“The problem is as a public investment, you would not go out there and reconstruct that building without an associated use,” he said. “Because all you’re asking for is vandals to come in and destroy it for a second time.”
Coleman said while some old buildings lend themselves to repurposing, the barn’s specific build likely limited any modern use. He’s also aware that much as some want to save all the buildings, sometimes it’s just not economically feasible.
Still, news of the barn’s demise saddened him. He said buildings like the barn, buildings that may be poor in appearance but rich in history, provide a sense of place that’s still so important here. They help people feel like they live “somewhere real,” he said.
“That’s why Vermont is Vermont,” Coleman said. “Our little towns and villages haven’t all been monopolized by discount stores and mini marts – the things you can see all over the rest of the country. You come to a Vermont village, and there’s a little country store that only exists in that village and when you see it, you know where you are.”
Community members in other towns that have torn down historic buildings have even called him to lament the change.
“They just feel lost,” he said. “They’ve lost that visual landmark, and suddenly, ‘Where am I?’”