Skip to content

Burlington’s barns

Fred Freeland Walker farm and barn, c. 1910, Burlington MA
Fred Freeland Walker farm and barn, c. 1910. That building (minus the silos)  is still standing in2022. It’s right behind today’s “Sunday School” building.
Fred Freeland Walker Dairy farm (now St. Margaret's parking lot) Burlington MA
Another shot, taken from Winn Street.


The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, April 8, 1980

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg
(Article # 042)


With the demolition of the old Kerrigan barn this past week, another piece of Burlington’s farming heritage has disappeared. But most of the old structure will live on because some of the beams and boards were carefully saved and will be used elsewhere to give some history buff or antiquary that pleasurable feeling of weathered wood.

That barn was probably built by the Cutler family early in the last century. An exact date is difficult to determine, but the framework was constructed in the “mortise and tenon” fashion and held together by wooden pegs. You’ll find the same in the Francis Wyman house and the old church at Simonds Park, and other early structures. The Kerrigan barn had two types of nails.

  1. Cut nails, similar to today’s hard wood flooring nails. These not appear until about 1850, suggesting later additions or renovations to the Kerrigan barn.
  2. Hand-forged nails! These are about 3 inches long and a figure-8 head design. They were made on a blacksmith’s forge or by the farmer himself in his own workshop.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, barns (and even some houses) were erected at an event called a “raisin'”. Like school graduations and huskin’ bees on the farms in the fall, the raising of a barn was an occasion for the whole neighborhood to work, socialize and celebrate. Think Amish.

When a farmer decided to build a barn, he usually cut the lumber needed on his own farm and fashioned the beams at least a year ahead so that they could season properly. You want any expansion or contraction of wood to happen before you build. Then he framed each side or section, called a bent, on the ground. If the structure was very large, men who specialized in framing were called in to help. Distances had to be precisely measured so that the chiseled-out mortises and tenons would fit together tightly. They were then locked in place by an oak peg usually an 1 1/4 inch thick and as long as needed.

Lifting those sides into place was a tricky business and needed more manpower than any one farm could produce, thus friends and neighbors for miles around came to help. Using long pikes or poles with a sharp spike on top, the bent was pushed upright and held in place until it could be firmly anchored and braced. The Kerrigan barn was no doubt built this way, for the plates which ran under the roof on either side of that barn were 40-foot-long timbers, something two or three men alone could not have handled. The man who dismantled the building could not handle them easily either. He had to cut them in two to remove them.

Barn-raising was dangerous. In 1807, Jeremiah Clapp decided to build himself a large three story house in the Central Square area of Woburn. So a house-raisin’ was called. Farmers for miles around with their families attended. The frame was assembled on the ground and then raised and braced in the usual fashion. However, when the roof timbers were put in place, their weight or thrust proved too great for the framework then assembled, and the whole structure collapsed with a splintering roar heard for miles. The 30 or more men at work on the frame were thrown to the ground in every direction.

Joshua Richardson and Samuel Wright, both young men soon to be married, were crushed by the falling timbers and died before the agonized eyes of their intended brides. John Lyman of north Woburn died that same July night, and Nathan Parker died within a week, leaving a wife and five children. Ishmael Munroe of 2 South Bedford Street in Burlington was crippled for life.

Barns also played a role in Burlington’s religious history. This town’s Catholics had to journey to Woburn at the turn of the century to find a church of their faith. Their affiliation with St. Charles was not officially broken until 1937 when Burlington was declared a mission of the newly established St. Mary’s Parish in Pinehurst. But Pinehurst was just as far away as Woburn, so efforts were made to find a suitable place in Burlington where Father Johnson of St. Mary’s could come and celebrate Mass.

The old Henry Marion barn on Beacon Street (part of Lowell Street before Route 128 arrived), then the property of Louis Colomb, was chosen to fill this need. Its recent history had been as a nightclub or speakeasy known as the Winnmere Inn, but in 1937 it was vacant. It opened as the Mission Church in October that year. But barns were never built to be entirely weatherproof. When that first winter proved to be a bitter one, the one-pipe furnace just could not cope. The fingers of the officiating priest became so numb on occasion that he had difficulty performing the service.

The following year, the mission moved to slightly-newer Sousa barn on Peach Orchard Road. That barn was suitable to host country dances. Thus it offered a good hard wood floor and a loft which could hold the organ and the choir. It served Burlington’s Catholics for 18 months. The Mission moved into its own dedicated church building in 1940, at the fork of Winn Street and Center Street.

This writer vividly remembers the McIntire barn at the top of Center Street. Working on that farm as a boy, he fell from the hay mow one summer day and broke his nose. Thus the Roman nose he sports to this day.