Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Zerns Wagon House: A Dutch-like Barn in Mannington

I began fieldwork under my latest New Jersey Historical Commission grant in August, assisted by my colleague Maria Cerda-Moreno. We focused on elevations and sections (more easily done with two people than floor plans) until we could be joined by our third crew member Stephanie Long Fazen in September. Those were some hot days!

The Zerns Wagon House is an example of a ubiquitous outbuilding type that had multiple uses, such as housing a farm wagon, drying and storing corn on the cob for use as animal feed, storing grain in a loft, storing potatoes in a cellar, and miscellaneous storage of implements and animals. Crib barns or wagon houses assume a number of different forms in the area however, though most have one or more drive bays and one or two side aisles, and some have cellars and lofts. Some were built of a piece; others were additive. 

Janet looking. Photo by Maria Cerda-Moreno.
The Zerns Wagon House was built of a piece with a central drive-in runway, adjacent side aisles, a loft, and a stone-walled cellar under the drive bay. It has the form and shape of gable-ended barns from other regions, such as the Dutch barn of northern New Jersey and New York, and those found in the Chesapeake region. This one, however, does not share the structural logic of a Dutch barn, which is built of a series of H-shaped frames called anchor bents. The Zerns barn is framed in the English way, as a principal post box frame.

Maria Cerda-Moreno and I measure the roof projection.
Janet records as Maria measures.
The farmstead was established in 1849 by John R. and Lydia Bassett Zerns. John Zerns was from Pennsylvania and Lydia was a daughter of Joseph Bassett, who was of a large, landed Quaker family in Mannington. The wagon house and the dwelling are the last standing historic buildings.

The farmstead is now unoccupied though the land is actively farmed by a local farmer who lives elsewhere. The last occupant, Ruthann Wright, sold the farm after her husband George, who was the third generation Wright on this farm, passed away in February 2009. Ruthanne has generously shared with me many family photos that chronicled the family and the farmstead since 1904. They will help me visualize the farmstead as it was and how it functioned. I have learned that there was once a three-bay basement barn with a dairying wing and milk house, a free-standing corn crib, a labor house, and an equipment shed. An Italianate-style house still stands, but is now vacant, unfortunately. Here in this wagon house, these farmers sat and cut the eyes out of last years' stored potatoes for planting this year's crop.

Maria, Stephanie and Janet in the wagon house, posing on the steps to the loft.
The wagon house bears evidence of two corn cribs, both within the central aisle at the side walls. A stair accesses the loft above, where we found possible evidence of bins for storing grain. We cautiously made our way down the cellar stair (sometimes they are very deteriorated from dampness), but it was actually quite sturdy. The cellar was floored with brick, and the runway floor framing had a closed-up hatchway which allowed produce such as potatoes to be lowered to the cellar from the runway floor. With headlamps, we recorded a plan and section. Like most such runway floors over cellars, this one had been shored up with many helper posts.

This wagon house was rehabilitated at least twice in its life. George and Ruthann Wright gave this building a complete new skin, including the exterior wall framing. Nevertheless, there was much original historic fabric to see, record and interpret, such as the main timber frame, floor joists, the double-thick wood floor, wood board walls complete with graffiti, staircases, and stone foundations. The crib slats were long gone, but shadows of them on the posts and beams, and empty stud mortises evidenced the former existence or corn cribs. These owners were natural preservationists, practical farmers who tended to save what they had and make it do.

The Wright's wagon house circa 1920.

The John and Lydia Zerns House, a farmhouse no more. The porches and third floor window grilles contribute greatly to its character.