Classic Barns of Maine | Sense of Place
What can an old barn reveal? What does it say about who we are, how we lived, what we still cherish? What do these buildings tell us, not only about the people who built them, but about their current caretakers as well?
These are some of the questions that photographer Sara Gray explored last winter as she documented four barns in New Gloucester, Maine, not far from her home in Falmouth. Her interest was well rooted. As a native Vermonter who grew up with horses, Gray’s affinity for farms and farmers has followed her photographic career; she’s trudged through deep snows in early morning to capture the way the light hits a weathered farmhouse or touches down on an old field. But barns have always held a particular affinity.
“As a photographer, they’ve always done it for me,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s nostalgia for my past, but there’s something about the beauty of these places, and the land around them. And there are certain places I’ve photographed and gone back to a year later and maybe they’ve fallen down or been torn down. I thought it would be nice to record these places and find out more about them.”
The four barns featured in this essay became a part of Gray’s daily commute 12 years ago when she bought a horse and started keeping it at Morgan Hill Farm in nearby New Gloucester. But a funny thing happened as Gray delved more deeply into her subjects: Her focus became less about the architecture and more about the farming culture at the heart of these big buildings. She spent time with the owners, photographed them at work, saw how much sweat and care went into preserving the structures she’d admired from a distance.
“They’re a part of Maine history,” Gray says. “It’s a farming community that’s disappearing. I think when people see a beautiful farm, it stirs in them an emotion, that it’s important to pay attention to that farm and preserve it.”
Over the course of two months, Gray spent considerable time at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, home to two 1830-built barns and the only active Shaker community left in existence. Meticulously maintained, the post-and-beam structures remain the center of the community’s life.
Upstairs in the front barn, once a stable, Gray discovered a treasure trove of old tractor parts, sleighs, saw blades, and other tools. But it was downstairs, where the animals reside, that Gray encountered the kind of farm life that has endured since Sabbathday Lake’s founding in 1783. At the heart of this continuation is Brother Arnold Hadd, the main caretaker of the farm’s livestock.
“Like clockwork, he’s out there twice a day, feeding and cleaning,” Gray says. “He knows all of his animals by name. And he’d be out there in the cold by himself. It was almost spiritual being there, watching him taking care of his morning chores.”
With its red-brick Federal-style home, sitting on a hill surrounded by some 100 acres of rolling farmland, Intervale Farm in New Gloucester is one of the icons of Route 231. Established in 1811, the farm was bought by pig farmer Edgar Wilcox in March 1959; he promptly fixed up the dilapidated home and barn, and later sold it to his son and daughter-in-law, Carl and Jan Wilcox.
With the exception of beef cattle in the summer, the Wilcoxes have for now largely given up raising animals. Today, the big building is a repository for the items that link the property to its former heritage: baskets and wagons, signs, and old farm equipment. And gourds, with which Jan has a self-admitted obsession.