By Sharon Lakey
This whole barn question started with Robin Rothman’s Four Barns prints for the Danville Historical Society. During the 70’s and 80’s, Robin roamed the back roads of the area, sketching interesting looking things. At the time, she was an art student at Antioch College and her mother had a house way back in North Danville. Forty or fifty years later, four of these sketches have been reproduced for the public in the form of limited prints and note cards.
It’s funny how memory works. Of the four sketches, one of the barns has raised some eyebrows. Robin would write on the bottom of most of the drawings notes about where they were sketched. That is a good thing, because things change considerably in a landscape, and memories that we thought were crystal clear have somehow become distorted through time.
The barn in question had such a note: “Barn that stood across Rt. 2 from school in Danville.” It is of a dilapidated looking building with all kinds of appendages—a square silo, a cupola, a long, slanted shed on the left, several doors askew on the front and a large tree growing up among surrounding foliage. It has a gambrel roof and a shed dormer, too. Also, the front treatment of the clapboards looks odd, because Robin has made the tone of clapboards darker in patches on the front of the barn. When we printed the sketches, Robin said, “Oh, that barn got burnt or torn down.”
When I showed the sketch to Dot (Ayer) Larrabee, she studied it a bit and said, “They used to have dances in that barn. But that isn’t how I remember it. I’m not sure it is the right one.”(Of course, Dot was living in West Danville as a young woman and had the benefit of the elegant Point Comfort dance hall.) Winona Gadapee dropped in, and her memory is almost always a sure thing.
“That was part of the Smith house,” she said, holding the sketch in her hand. Things looked a little dim for identification as she began shaking her head in confusion. I got a phone call just then and Winona kept the sketch in hand for quite a span. When I hung up, she said, “Don’t throw the idea away, though,” she said. “My parents took me to some dances in the barn on Route 2 and that may be where we came in,” she said, her finger tracing the slanted shed. “And that looks like where we stood inside,” she said, pointing this time to the shed dormer. There was a lot of room for dancing up there.” She also informed me that it had burned in 1950 and her husband, Arnie, had helped fight the fire.
I went back into the archives and brought out a 1929 all-class photo of Phillips Academy, and we looked at the Smith place, house and barn, which are in the background of that photo. The roof of that barn isn’t gambrel. We know that Jane and Guil Kitchel own a barn now on that location, a nice newer-looking red one right on Route 2. It has a gambrel roof, but it is a far cry from the barn in the sketch. Did Guil build a new one in the old one’s place?
On my way home that evening, I happened to meet up with Robin; the note card was in my hand, and I explained that the barn was somewhat of a mystery. I was wondering if she may have been mistaken in her note taking. “I sat right across the road and sketched it!” she said without hesitation. I had to find figure this one out.
First, I called Guil, who is very attentive to details when it comes to history. When I explained the conundrum, he said his barn (the red one) was built in 1941. He also said there was a fire in 1950, started by a disgruntled hired man in the hay loft, but the barn had been saved. “You can see where some of the clapboards have been scorched,” he said.
With this new information, I went back with my camera the next morning. I still had the sketch in hand and when Guil came out to visit about it, he held the note card in his hand and nodded. “This is how it looked when we got it in the 80’s,” he said. We looked at the red barn from all angles. He explained the different things he had done to it, including taking all the old appendages off and clearing the foliage. Even the tin cupola, popular and inexpensive in the 40’s, was unstable and had to be taken down. “It’s a good barn, though,” he said, “great place for storage.” On the back, he showed me the scorched clapboards. “I had to replace the front ones, because they were rotted, but I haven’t replaced these yet.”
I called Winona and told her all about it, asking for any stories she may have about the dances. “Oh my, I was just in junior high. My mom and dad took me to them. I remember thinking the Hale boy was pretty cute, and he was there. Mom and Dad didn’t much like that, but they took him home that night in the back of the pickup. They were clean dances,” she said, “country style with a band.” They did square and string dances. “The barn seems smaller, now. There was room for a lot of dancers,” she said.
Talk about synchronicity. Glenn Badger from Danbury, CT, son of Geneva and Phil Badger, walked into Historical House the next day. His family was living in the Smith house during this period of time. He well remembers the dances held in the barn. His Aunt Maggie, who was in a wheelchair, took tickets and his parents set up a concession stand just inside the door at the top of the high drive. “Steamed hot dogs and that sort of thing,” he said. “Danville was a dry town in those days,” said Glenn. “People would keep alcohol in their cars and would go in and out for that.” He said the Texas Ramblers, a country band from St. Johnsbury, played and rememeberd in particular a woman named Kay who played the piano and Judge, the leader of the band.
Arnie Gadapee was working at Marty’s where I caught up with him to ask about the fire. It seems it was deer season and he and his buddies, Bob and Bill Beattie, had skipped school and gone deer hunting up at the camp behind Beattie’s. “We could see the fire from up there,” he said, “and we came back to help put it out. I remember getting onto a hose in the stable part of the barn, standing in my sneakers, water up to my knees. Poor Bob was up on the roof and someone swung an axe and hit him in the head with it. I think they had to take him up to Dr. Paulsen for some stitches.” When asked if he knew the story about the hired man starting the fire he said, “Now that you mention it, that rings a bell.”
I called Kate Beattie to see what she remembered about the hired man, but she wasn’t at home. Occie, her son, answered, and when I told him what I was calling about, he said he remembered sitting in school and watching the fire out the window. “Anything about the hired man?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, that’s what people were saying,” he replied.
For a photo album showing the barns in question, click here.
This article was first published in the September, 2010, issue of The North Star Monthly.