By Nicholas H. Kondon | September 08, 2011
Nick Kondon discovers fascinating historical items in a barn in Hope Valley, Rhode Island.
On a country road, I drive slowly past a New England dry-barn, no silo. Silos signal cattle, not steamer trunks. As the weathered boards center in my sight, I acquire super vision, like a comic book hero. I can see through the barn’s closed door - see treasures long forgotten. Old sleighs, tools from the 1800s, a painted chest that has a well preserved farm quilt folded carefully inside – waiting for me to hold its edges and snap it open to let it feel the sun for the first time in eighty years.
My nose has super powers, too. I smell dry dust. Old, dry dust. It’s the aroma of potential discovery. I give in to the urge to navigate up the driveway to the house, to knock on the door, to ask whomever answers “Want your barn cleaned? Free. Do it right now.” The owner always hesitates for a moment, but in the end says, “Go ahead. Nothin’ there but junk. Help yourself. Close the door when you leave.”
I return to my car, open the trunk and remove a flashlight and some canvas gloves. I’m a burglar going to work in broad daylight. Then the barn passes from view and, once again, I’m driving. The daydream ends, but I know that the just-passed barn is filled with the kind of loot that graces the pages of Maine Antiques Digest. How do I know?
Because once, I did stop and ask. Why that particular barn drew me so strongly that I really did drive to house, and knock on the door, I cannot say, but that day, I was Jason and I knew where the fleece would be. The barn was in Hope Valley, Rhode Island, in plain view. Over decades, hundreds could have stopped before I did, looted the barn, and sailed back to Thessaly with the treasure, but none did.
The barn’s owner, a woman who had married into the barn said, “Help yourself.” But within thirty minutes I was back at her door telling her there were things in the barn she wanted. She insisted there were not. Before my cleaning was finished, I had convinced her that certain things should go to auction on her behalf. She asked was there enough auction material to pay for her new leech field. I estimated that there was. “Sell that, and keep the rest,” she instructed.
The barn was an impermeable membrane. Since 1792, much had gone in, nothing had come out. It groaned with family bibles, ornately framed portraits, sleds, tools, more than fifty hand saws, two dozen maple block planes, signs, one reading “White Wyandotte’s for hatching. $.75 a set.”, cloth “Posted” signs warning me not to hunt, fish, trap, pick fruit, or trespass. My job would take days, I thought. It took seven weeks. The barn became my church. I went there three or four times a week to worship in peace.
With the consent of my benefactor, I came away with a pair of ice skates circa 1825, six brass instruments, and the bass drum used by the Town’s turn-of-the century marching band, four nested fly rods crafted before Teddy Roosevelt stopped cowboying, and, from a kindling wood box beneath the stairs, a five sailor, pre-Civil War whirligig in blue and white paint, alligatored and wonderful. Had the fire wood box not been kept above quarter-full for over 150 years, these painted wood figures with boaters on their heads would have had no greater purpose than to charge a pot-bellied stove.
But the thing I most treasure, that now sits newly framed on my desk, is a document dated April, 1803. It’s a simple but extraordinary bill of sale. In a flowing pen and ink hand, it reads in the original:
Know all by these Presents that I Lillibridge Barber of Exeter in the County of Washington and State of Rhode Island and yeoman have sold all my right title that I have to one Certain Negro or malater man none by the name Lewis Barber to Secer Kenyon of Exeter in the County and State above and yeoman for the sum of fifty Silver Dollars in hand and that the said Lillibridge Barber do warrant for my self my Executors and Administrators for ever have set my hand this day of April 8 1803.
Oddly, for the time, a woman, Alice Barber, bore witness. I cherish above all other treasures resurrected from that barn, this sepia-colored scrap of paper because in fewer than 100 words it tells a complete story of the people who built the barn, and the country they lived in, and the way things were in a bygone day. Some say it was a simpler time. For Lewis Barber, probably not.