Happy Barn Raising Day

Witness-barn-raising-scene-Bluray-screenshot-3It’s April 15, or what I like to think of as Barn Raising Day.

I’ve never been to a barn raising, but I’ve seen them in the movies. The first one I ever saw, in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, although a triumph of choreography, didn’t work out so great for the barn. So my barn-raising ideal must come from the scene in Witness: the determined effort and cooperation among sweaty pseudo-Amish, including a straight-faced Alexander Godunov[1], who grudgingly comes to appreciate Harrison Ford’s sure-handed carpentry skills. (No, really—he used to be a carpenter.)Barn Raising--Witness

A bit of movie magic there, with perfect morning and evening light, lemonade, and harmony. But it represents real magic, doesn’t it? The magic of accomplishing as a group what no one person could do alone.

I would like to hire a sign-language interpreter so that the hearing impaired kids at the elementary school can be a part of school assemblies, but I don’t personally have the money for that.

I would like to feed breakfast to any kid who doesn’t get breakfast at home.

I would like to fix the road when the potholes get bad.

I would like to give people who have lost their jobs enough money to get by until they find another one.

I would like to hire and train a group of people to be able to respond should a house in the neighborhood catch fire. And I’d like to buy them a fire truck, too.

But I don’t personally have the money for that. Or the time or the expertise or—let’s be honest—the sustained selflessness.

That’s why I love taxes.

I can lift just fifty pounds or so by myself. Still I can build a barn. My only real talent is making lemonade. Still I can build a barn. No time to help—I’ve got three little kids! Still I can build a barn.

Taxes allow me to get things done beyond what I personally can do, and therefore they allow me to fulfill more than just my personal needs. I could probably make an argument why it is to my personal benefit that (according to a brief glance at its website) Albany County offers Adult Protective Services, “a system of care and services for those facing abuse and/or neglect.” But really I’m just glad it does—and that I neither have to offer that care myself nor figure out what that care entails. I just have to pay my taxes.

Same goes for the Soil Sampling, Recycled Used Inkjet Cartridges Assistance, and the Coroner’s Office. Would I have thought to pay for Fish Stocking and the Albany County Hockey Facility? Maybe not. But maybe that’s out of ignorance. My taxes pay other people not just to do these jobs but also to figure out what jobs need to be done.

Do I want to pay for the invasion of Iraq or abstinence-based sex “education”? I do not. That’s what elections are for: to hire people who would spend my money the way I would.

On police and roads and schools—things that help me. On food stamps and refugee settlement and that sign language interpreter—things that help others. And on a third category, a category that extends beyond concrete and practical into the abstract and philosophical. Arts funding, and war memorials, and NASA.

In this category also falls a modern-day barn raising that took place just a few miles from us. It was to save a glorious old post-and-beam barn, built by Frank Osterhout for the Hilton family, who once raised cattle here in the Town of New Scotland (one of a ring of small towns that circles the city of Albany). According to Dennis Sullivan, town historian, the first raising of that barn (120 feet long, 60 feet wide, 60 feet high) took place on March 25, 1898. “Early that Saturday morning,” Sullivan wrote in our local paper, “160 men, volunteers steeped in the tradition of mutual aid, showed up at the Hilton farm and raised the mammoth structure.”[2]

One hundred eighteen years later, just a few days before it was due to be torn down by developers, the barn was raised again. This time, with hydraulic jacks under steel beams bolted to the barn’s original timber columns. By a company of building movers (Mennonites!) from Pennsylvania.[3] Who were paid by county[4] and state[5] grants. Which were secured by Town Board members.[6] Who are paid by the town.

In other words, the barn was raised not by 160 men but by taxes.

Once the barn was up, the moving company placed dollies under the steel beams and rolled the beautiful piece of history across the road to an acre of donated property[7] adjacent to a popular Rail Trail.
Hilton Barn

Town officials haven’t decided what to do with it. They just thought that it should be saved. Sure, that barn will be useful at some point—it will house a farmers market or a café or public gathering place. But right now it’s just a monument to a small town’s idea of itself and to its will to preserve history. To abstract concepts that feed our collective hunger for meaning and identity.

And all it cost me was a few pennies.


[1] Godunov smallerJust for fun, pause to imagine Alexander Godunov’s expression if he were faced with those high-stepping, fist-throwing, candy-colored Brothers.Seven BrosIt seems like the music would just falter and stop. Or else he’d pull out his machine gun from Die Hard.

[2] The Altamont Enterprise; article from 1987 (referred to in a February 21, 2014, article by Melissa Hale-Spencer).

[3] Wolfe House and Building Movers, Bernville, Penn.

[4] County Legislator Mike Mackey put the grant process in motion and kept it going. And county services cleared the lot for free, thanks to Darrell Duncan, Albany County Commissioner of Public Works, and County Executive Dan McCoy.

[5] Senator George Amedore and Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy and their staffs made these happen.

[6] Town Board members Bill Hennessy and Adam Greenberg both spent enormous time and effort on the project; without Bill’s perseverance, in particular, the barn would surely now be razed rather than raised. Town resident Edie Abrams came up with the idea; former Town Board member Dan Mackay initially championed it.

[7] Jennifer Hilton donated her part of the property to the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, which bought the other part and donated both to the town. Mark King, MHLC’s executive director, made it all work out right.


  1. I love this: “Do I want to pay for the invasion of Iraq or abstinence-based sex “education”? I do not. That’s what elections are for: to hire people who would spend my money the way I would.” Thinking of our elected officials as people WE HIRE to take care of things, I just love that. Why, you must be a Democratic Socialist or something!

  2. And just think —if ALL the taxes we pay were used efficiently, honestly and to do real good (not that anyone would be able to define what that is.)

    I am thrilled to learn the barn is being saved. When I saw the houses start going up around it, it was heart breaking. Hooray for Ms. Hilton and the rail trail.

  3. My too occasional visit to Facebook this time brought me a treasure and for the first time made being “tagged” clearly a lovely thing. Wonderful piece. I agree with Dani about the Iraq sentence, probably the most efficient explanation of democracy one could find. So many places where the joints fit joyously. Raising taxes, raising barns … raising children smarter than I am.

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