Stolen pieces of a dream

Historic barn owner's hopes to restore site is hindered by thieves who have taken some of the building's structure

May 06, 2007|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

Sharon Sharp bought the century-old Carroll County property three years ago with the idea of turning it into a horse farm for her daughter and a place for her grandchildren to roam.

The Ohio native, who grew up on a thousand-acre farm, had a lot of work to do: The foundation and some hand-tooled oak beams for the first floor of a barn were largely what remained of that structure. The bank barn, where farmers could easily unload hay, had little more than its stone foundation.

"Mother Nature's everywhere out there," Sharp said of her property just north of Westminster, where she has seen deer and foxes run wild and enjoyed the fruit trees and berries. "It's just a dream."

But early last month, a few stones were taken from her bank barn's foundation. Thieves returned the following week and stole at least 2 feet of the main barn's stone wall, along with some of the buildings original oak beams and newer logs Sharp had had shipped from Arkansas more than a year ago for the restoration.

They also removed the large cut cornerstone from the front barn, a solid, smooth piece of rock made to support the weight of the others.

Sharp estimates her losses to be at least $50,000, according to the sheriff's office, and the disappearance of the items could hinder, if not end, the restoration.

"Whoever did it knew what they were doing," Sharp said, adding that the culprits didn't bust down the barns' stone walls. "They went in and mostly dug things out, cut things out."

The recent incidents at Sharp's farm appear to be rare.

Virgil McDill, communications manager for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, said the trust's historic sites are seeing less thefts than they a few decades ago.

"Theft is just not something that we're confronting really at all," McDill said.

But the thefts from Sharp's barns seem to correlate with a national passion for reclaimed wood.

"America's going through a real rustic period," said David Sacia, owner of the Wisconsin-based Old Barn Wood Co., which deals in antique lumber. People seek weathered barn siding and vintage timber for their homes to create that rustic look, Sacia said.

"So there's value in the old barn beams."

Alex Grabenstein, owner of Vintage Lumber in Woodsboro, said he has seen a steady demand for reclaimed wood in the more than 30 years he's been in business.

"There is a market for antique, reclaimed material, and especially now that it's becoming green, that puts an additional value on it," Grabenstein said, because chopping down a tree isn't required.

County farmers and local law enforcement officials also expressed surprise at the thefts at Sharp's property, saying they aren't common. Several said they believe the culprits must have known the value of what they were taking and the potential market for it.

"We have had our share of burglaries and all the thefts from vehicles where people have left things of value in their vehicles," said Sgt. Padraic Lacy, who supervises the criminal investigations section of the Maryland State Police at the Westminster barracks. "But nothing, per se, like the incident where they're taking the logs, the building materials from the old historical buildings. I can't say that I recall having anything like that happen."

Lt. Phil Kasten, spokesman for the county Sheriff's Office, said it was obvious the thieves knew what they were doing.

"The particular stones that they've selected were ones that they knew the significance and importance of," Kasten said. "They've been back twice ... very brazen."

Some of the pieces taken from the foundation could sell for $100 apiece, he said.

The stones would likely be easy to replace, said Bob Jones, a former county farm extension agent.

The stones are not easily identifiable, Jones said, except for those specially cut by a mason for the ends or corners.

The wooden beams might prove more difficult to duplicate, he added.

Such wood can be valuable and difficult to replace, said Glenn James of Craftwright Timber Frames in Westminster, which designs and produces timber frame structures.

Oak could sell for anywhere from $5 to $20 a foot, said James, who has heard of people pilfering items off historic properties.

"This is a big deal," James said, referring to the possible damage that missing beams could mean to the barns' timber framing.

Ken Short, a local architectural historian, also emphasized the potential value of the stolen materials for a different reason. While there are businesses that replicate a barn's timber, Short said, "the history is completely lost. So anything we can learn from that building will be gone."

The likelihood of identifying the purloined wood is slim, Short said.

Sharp's plans for restoring her piece of county history have been put on hold. The farm, with an estimated 17 acres of grassy hills and woods, had once been part of a larger property of more than 150 acres, Sharp said. The primary structure -- a 1 1/2 story building -- was constructed in 1850, according to county records.

A large orange gate was recently erected around her property, sporting no trespassing signs to ward off future opportunists.

She doesn't know what it will cost to replenish her supply of oak logs or to replace the hand-cut stone, if the originals are not found, Sharp said.

Some people have suggested she forgo the expensive oak and stone and simply use tin or some kind of metal, she said, but it wouldn't look original.

She said she isn't quite sure how she will make her original vision come true.

"I really don't want to sell it," Sharp said. "You can't replace stuff like this."

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