Preserving Howard's heritage, one log at a time

National Park Service workers are using simple tools to restore a two-story barn built by a farmer in 1860


Standing on scaffolding, wearing eye-protecting glasses and with a steel hammer in his hand, Louis Brown sweated in the humid air as he laboriously restored the stone chinks between hand-hewn logs that farmer Aaron McKenzie first erected in Howard County 145 years ago.

"It gives you the feel of what they had to go through back in time," said Brown, 28, a National Park Service employee helping Howard County restore the two-story, 1860 log barn McKenzie built on what is now McKenzie Road, north of Old Frederick Road.

To get that feeling, Brown and Sharon Feeney, another park service worker, are leading the effort to replace lost or rotted timbers, hand hewing them with simple tools the way McKenzie did.

The county had prepared the site - in Rockburn Branch Park off Montgomery Road in Elkridge - with a stone-and-mortar foundation and a concrete floor to ease the way for visitors.

Stones must be painstakingly fitted into the large openings in the logs. A soft mortar mixture is then applied over the stones, a process called daubing, to keep wind and rain out. The roof, bowed in the center, was recently replaced with new cedar shingles.

Feeney said the logs in the upper story of the building are original, but many in the first floor are replacements. Some of the stones used in chinking are also original, she said.

"It's important to show people what was here. It's part of your history," Feeney said.

"Rockburn provides an opportunity for children to feel history. Touching the hand-hewn marks of an axe, seeing the horsehair in the chinking, experiencing the narrow confines and darkness of a primitive structure - these are the things that bring history to life," said Mary Catherine Cochran, who heads Preservation Howard County.

The Civil War-era building was donated to the county by Jean Hannon and was partly dismantled and moved 19 years ago from her home on McKenzie Road to its current location.

The county is spending $63,417 to restore it as part of a loosely organized heritage park. Near the barn stands the Clover Hill Farm house, which senior county park planner Clara Gouin said dates to the late 18th or early 19th century.

That boarded-up building could one day become a restaurant, though previous plans for that fell through. Nearby, out of sight, is the restored 19th-century, one-room Pfeiffer School, also moved from the northern county to Rockburn Branch Park.

"There's quite a rich heritage here in Howard County. At one time, it was farmed from end to end," Gouin said. The log building technology came from Sweden with immigrants who came to Pennsylvania and northern Delaware, she said.

"They had built log cabins for centuries. There is a technique for joining the logs with different kinds of joints."

The Hannons bought the barn from a farm family who used the building commercially, she said.

"The previous owners raised pigs, which I understand you could smell down in Ellicott City. She put her sons through college" with the profits, said Hannon, who is in her 80s.

Later, a neighbor kept a donkey and a pony in the building. "Everything was hand-done. I loved it, really," Hannon said.

Brown said he is so enthusiastic about the work that "I want to build one of these myself in the woods," perhaps near his hometown, Cumberland.

Hannon marveled at how many years it has taken to restore the barn.

"I know preservation takes a long while. I'm glad it's preserved. It's a beautiful old barn," she said.

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