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UNION — Harvest time in Northeast Oregon is alive with the din of huge machines moving tons of hay and crops. Livestock are being transported to wintering grounds. For many, the bales and bulls and amber fields symbolize the riches of our agricultural heritage. We are blessed with abundant bounty. Autumn’s aura reminds us of childhood, apple cider, caramel apples and corn stalks, bonfires and hayrides. And for one Union native, an enchanting barn.
he barn serves as a gathering place for Robert Sheehyâ€™s extended family. His mother, Dona, says there are at least 60 of her direct descendants in Northeast Oregon and 100 when everyone is present.
On the outskirts of town, several dusty miles down a winding gravel road called High Valley sets an aged barn filled with memories from Robert Sheehy’s boyhood.
He was reared on the ranch next door, the eldest child of Bob and Dona Sheehy’s dozen. As it is for most country kids, work was just a part of life. As a teenager, Robert toiled at the sales yard and for his neighbor, Wilbur Smith, putting up hay.
He had the rare opportunity to purchase Mr. Smith’s farm in the early 1990s. It came with a home and the barn from his youth. The property shares water rights with his parents’ place, which was a significant acquisition.
An international economist by profession, Robert has lived abroad with his wife and children for the past 20 years. His parents and siblings have assisted with the upkeep and leasing of the home and farmland to tenants. Of particular importance to Robert was the preservation of the barn — not only for nostalgia and a need to store large farm equipment, but for the practical logistics of gathering all his extended family for special occasions. His mother, Dona, says there are at least 60 of her direct descendants in Northeast Oregon and 100 when everyone is present.
Somewhere I read: “Preservation is simply having the good sense to hold on to things that are well designed, that link us with our past in a meaningful way, and that have plenty of good use left in them.”
Robert had the right instinct when he decided to save the barn and made a key alliance with a gifted craftsman/contractor, Steve Huntington of Union. He is a skilled artisan with a penchant for excellence.
Replacing the dilapidated roof was an urgent priority. One blustery fall day, Steve got up there to see what he could do. The substantial sway kept him from continuing. He worked on the interior instead, constructing collar ties and knee braces to beef up stability.
During this period, the building was squared and reinforced, and the windows were re-glazed. Steve painstakingly removed and carefully replaced siding to be as inconspicuous as possible. The roof was replaced with thousands of cedar shingles. He experimented with the stain for the siding by brushing paint thinner over the wood to match the many layers of color.
About $25,000 to $30,000 into it, Robert had a nice barn of no use. Eventually, the decision was made to transform the nearly century-old structure into a useful gathering place. Now Steve could really work his building magic.
The project progressed steadily over seven years as time and resources permitted with many of Robert’s family members contributing to the effort and adding moral support. Steve was assisted by his partner, Dan Brinton, and son, Buster Huntington.
The building was originally a working cow barn with stanchions and a hay mow. New floors were built as well as two bathrooms and a kitchen area.
A portion of the hay loft was saved and fashioned into a balcony where the family band (made up of four of Robert’s brothers and a nephew) play their tunes. Massive doors were cut into one end of the building to permit access by large farm equipment. Wood decking was laid where the cows once stood.
Antique farm relics were discovered during the clean-up and now hang for display on a wall. The old Jackson fork hangs in the rafters and a post well worn by a workhorse was preserved.
Boards were left undisturbed where the farmer recorded dates that his cows calved and the cost of supplies. A few quaint scribbles read, “1959 May 20 and May 22 Sophie May,” presumably the name of a cow. Another list keeps track of expenditures: “$6.15 hound, $6.50 muck rope, $2.00 4 x 4, $1.00 staples” and so on.
This past August, Robert returned from Europe to attend a family reunion in his revamped house of hay. Some day, he may build a home across the street overlooking the barn and he’ll be thankful he hired Steve to capture the past.
For now, a copper rooster stands watch atop the louvered cupola while the cows in the field low their contented approval.