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Residents rally to save Brennan Barn

Boy Scout Ben Cotton, left, is working on the Brennan Barn project for his eighth grade challenge at Williston Central School. (Courtesy photo)

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

A symbol of Williston’s agrarian past stands vacant by the side of Mountain View Road, its faded façade and derelict haylofts telling the tales of two centuries of evolution, like so many tree rings on a rotted oak.

Known at various junctures as Truman Barn and Kennedy Barn, the decaying structure of early 19th century vintage which guards the entrance to the Williston Community Gardens is today known as Brennan Barn. It shares its namesake with the adjacent Brennan Woods neighborhood, although the reminder of its traditional farmstead use stands in sharp contrast to the suburban modernity of Williston’s largest subdivision.

“There’s not that many old barns left,” said Williston resident Tom Hark. “And with all the development that’s going on in Williston—which is all great from an economic development standpoint—we just have a few of these treasures left in town.”

Hark, the founding president of the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps and committee chairman of Williston Boy Scout Troop 692, first got wind of the dire state of Brennan Barn while chatting on the sidelines of a youth lacrosse game with Brennan Woods resident Kristen Littlefield.

Littlefield, who is leading the restoration effort, said in an interview that her decision to get involved was a case of life imitating art.

“This whole thing rolled out because I’m writing a middle grade novel, and in the story my main character saves his neighbor’s barn with a friend of his,” Littlefield said. “So because I was writing that story, I kept looking at our barn and I said, ‘If the character in my story can save a barn, I can save a barn.’”

Littlefield echoed Hark’s sentiments regarding the importance of Brennan Barn as both an artifact of Williston’s past and a counterpoint to its rapidly developing future.

“I just think the barn is a testament to Williston’s history, but it’s also a tribute to people who are trying to make it in farming right now and who are trying to make small farms work,” she said. “Saving this barn would be a nice contrast to the development that’s going on in Williston.”

Saving the barn won’t be cheap. According to a technical assistance report by consultant Jan Lewandoski, the estimated cost of the restorative measures will be upward of $100,000.

Eric Gilbertson, a field service representative with the Preservation Trust of Vermont, said he doubts that the town of Williston, which owns the barn and the surrounding land, would be willing to make a significant contribution to the restoration project. However, he noted that there are state grant monies available which could be matched through a grassroots fundraising effort.

“I think this would be pretty easy to fundraise for on a local basis. There’s lots of people who drive by that barn every day,” Gilbertson said. “I think between grants and fundraising, I don’t think the town would have to put much (money) in it, and I think that they would then have the space to use. It would be a great storage space.”

The grassroots movement is already underway. On Saturday, a group of local volunteers—including 15 Boy Scouts—spent the morning clearing brush and felling trees around the barn, so that it will dry faster (and decay more slowly) after rain showers.

The Scouts were led by Ben Cotton, who is incorporating the Brennan Barn project into his eighth grade challenge at Williston Central School.

Cotton, who noted that 25 trees were removed Saturday, said he hopes the increased visibility of the barn will encourage residents to get involved.

“You can actually see it (now), so people will actually notice it,” he said.

For more information about the Brennan Barn restoration project, contact Kristen Littlefield at 872-9987.