June 7, 2012

Old Barns

Over its long history, the Town Archives Committee has undertaken projects that today might fall under the purview of a Heritage Commission. These include publications, road signs, house markers, and surveys or inventories of historical resources. Continuing in that role, we recently provided research and advice to our town administrators as they developed a process to evaluate applications made under RSA 79-D, New Hampshire's so-called "Barn Law."

The state law is now ten years old, but this spring marked the first time a local homeowner had applied for the discretionary easement and tax abatement designed to keep historic agricultural structures on our landscape. The law was meant to alleviate a tax-induced disincentive for keeping barns and other outbuildings in good repair — namely, the increased assessment (and corresponding property taxes) resulting from the maintenance of those buildings, which once represented income-producing assets but are now more often seen as useless liabilities.

Between 1850 and 1870, the federal census included detailed agricultural schedules. In 1870 New London had 128 farms, each of which probably had at least one barn and a number of outbuildings. Our 2012 field survey of extant barns indicates that fewer than 50 might be older than 75 years, and far fewer date from 1870 or earlier. So when the owners of a 1792 farmstead approached the town about a preservation easement on their barn, we saw this as the perfect inaugural case. Our research traced the history of the property's ownership from its first lotting-out in 1773 to the present. Using census data and tax records, we also gathered snapshots of the farm's agricultural operations until the late 1800s when it was converted into a guest house to serve New London's summer tourist trade.

In assessing historic properties, preservationists look for two things: significance and integrity. The terms have technical definitions that set a high hurdle for recognition programs like the National Register of Historic Places. This farmstead would probably not clear that hurdle because its significance is not of a national scope, but it would be considered eligible for the State Register. Its significance stems from its association with the area's agricultural development and later transition to a more recreation-based economy. Its integrity stems from its construction of hand-hewn timbers, its prominent setting on a working hayfield, and its design as part of a connected farmhouse complex. For all those reasons the town administrators decided at a public hearing that this barn represented a public benefit worthy of consideration for tax abatement under RSA-79D.

When people ask what purpose the Town Archives serves, we are hard-pressed to come up with a succinct response. We never know where the next inquiry into our town's history will lead.