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The History Of One Old Barn In Washington State
I like old barns and cemeteries! Okay, fine, I’m weird and I acknowledge that fact. Call me anything you like and I’ll understand but I can’t change the fact that I love old barns. I love the smell of them, a mixture of old hay and animal droppings and decades of other scents mixed and mingled in the floorboards. I love the old wood, so weather-beaten and distinguished, standing against the elements and time and doing so with dignity and grace.
Most of all, though, I love the history of the barn that is such an integral part of the barn itself. When was it built? What was happening around the area when that barn was constructed? Who owned it and what has it been used for? I am fascinated by this stuff, thinking about the life that has surrounded those old structures. Families have come and gone; real-life dramas were played out inside of those barns. They are, in effect, guardians of our societal legacy.
Today I would like to introduce you to one of the oldest sentinels in Washington State, the magnificent Rutledge pole barn just outside of Littlerock, Washington. You might want to wear some boots as you go on the tour with me because you see, after 150 years of service, this old barn is still in use. The Rutledge clan, now just father and son, still have about forty head of cattle and the barn is used to store hay for the winter as well as memories for a lifetime.
Thomas Rutledge arrived in the area now known as Littlerock in 1853 and with the help of fellow pioneer John Shotwell began to slash a road between his homestead and the town of Tumwater to the north. At this time Rutledge lived in a hand-hewn log cabin but he soon began construction on the beautiful two-story farmhouse you can see in the picture to the right. The house has two fireplaces and, as this writer can attest, many furnishings that date back to those early years of pioneering.
In addition to building the farmhouse a barn was erected and that barn, which is one of the largest found in Western Washington, is still in operation today. It is the product of Mortise and Tenon Construction, made again of hand-hewn timbers and beams and it contains not a single nail. Wooden pegs were used in those days to fasten boards together and the construction is of a type called “timber frame,” a common form of architecture in the mid-1860s. In “timber framing” the frame is supported by the size and strength of the timbers and beams rather than the skeletal framing technique used today.
Interestingly the rock from which Littlerock got its name still sits in front of the Rutledge home today.
HISTORY MARCHES BY
The old Rutledge house and barn have seen quite a bit of history since they were constructed. Think about this for a moment: when both were built the area was known as the Washington Territory. There was a splattering of settlers to and fro but certainly no organized community. People were still coming to the Territory by the Oregon Trail and statehood would not occur for another thirty years. The Governor of the Washington Territory at its inception in 1853 was Isaac Stevens and the Native Americans far outnumbered white settlers. Dominant tribes in the area were the Kwaialik, Kwalhloqua, Sahowamish and Cowlitz and they must have been fascinated by the huge barn being built near their villages.
The barn, in fact, was built the year the Civil War began and during the first five years of its existence quite a few soldiers could be seen marching along the Littlerock Road as traffic increased between Vancouver to the South and Tumwater to the North.
The Pony Express surely sent riders along the main road having begun in 1860 and at some point in 1863 word of the Gettysburg Address must have reached the Rutledge farm. I’m certain the newly invented lightbulb by Thomas Edison must have illuminated the area sometime in the 1880s and I have no doubt there was a celebration when Washington was declared a state in 1889.
Twenty-nine Presidents have ascended to office since the old barn was built and one wonders how long after Henry Ford invented his Model T that the first of those noisy contraptions drove by the little rock in front of the farmhouse?
This was a self-sustaining time for newcomers to the Washington Territory. The nearest town, Tumwater, was eight miles away, not an easy trip by wagon, so farmers and homesteaders learned to provide for themselves and not rely on government for assistance. If you had a problem you handled it; if you had a need you found a way to supply it. Today’s modern movement toward self-sustaining was not a movement at all in the 1860s but rather a way of life. The preachers in the area might say on Sundays that the Lord shall provide but farmers knew that they needed to give the Lord a hand or nothing was going to happen.
TODAY….A GLIMPSE OF ANOTHER TIME
Bev and I found the Rutledge farm purely by accident while in the middle of a quiet Sunday drive in the country. We came to the town of Littlerock, turned left and after a mile of driving sighted a magnificent structure rising out of the farmland. We pulled into the driveway with the purpose of taking some pictures and were immediately greeted by Dale Rutledge and his son who have lived on that farm all of their lives. Dale is now in his nineties and a nicer man you will never meet.
We were given a tour of the barn and then invited into the farmhouse and what was supposed to be a ten minute picture stop turned into an hour-and-a-half history lesson. As we walked through the barn the craftsmanship was apparent at every turn. Many of the original tools and farming implements, unused for decades, were tucked away in corners. The sunlight filtered through spaces in the roof, the original roof, and there was a surreal quality to the whole tour. That roof had withstood the Great Snowstorm of 1916, the Blizzard of 1950, the Columbus Day Storm of 1962, the tornado outbreak of 1972 and countless other attacks by Mother Nature over the years.
These old structures were built to last. The Rutledge home and barn withstood earthquakes in 1872, 1909, 1936, 1939, a 7.3 quake in 1946 and a 6.5 quake in 1965, sustaining minor damage in each but never brought to the ground. They are a testament to a simpler time when man took on the problems of the day with determination and know-how and relied on very little else for existence.
Yes, I love old barns! I am a huge proponent for a self-sustaining lifestyle and in the years to come I believe many of us will need to embrace that lifestyle to withstand the vagaries of the economic and political systems. I love the idea of tackling life with few extras and relying only on loved ones to get by. I love the idea of raising your own food and having all that you need on your property. Most of all, though, I love the idea of a simpler life, whittling down one’s lifestyle so that the important things in life, like family and social values, are at the top of our priority list.
My thanks to the Rudledge men who graciously allowed Bev and I to share part of a sunny afternoon with them. Father and son are the keepers of a legacy that began in 1853 and is still being written today. It was fascinating and heartwarming to visit with these fine gentlemen and listen to them proudly share the past with us.
2012 Bill Holland (aka billybuc)
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