Straightening the crooked

Farm Forum

You probably won’t find barn straighteners in the yellow pages.

Barn straighteners don’t hand out business cards or set at farm show booths.

In fact, you probably won’t find many barn straighteners anywhere, anymore. More and more old barns are dropping to their knees, then burned on chilly days to make room for the pole barns all the rage in these days of tight budgets.

The late Ray Chamberlain of Sinai was a barn straightener. His mission in life is to put old barns straight with the world again.

When I met Ray he was in his early 70s and had more barns on his “a-kilter list” than he knew what to do with.

Prairie winds, a tornado now and then, and the propensity for wood to gradually rot away and seek sea level kept him busy.

He’d straightened prairie monuments stood tall again from Minneapolis to the Nebraska Sand Hills. Most of his work was in South Dakota. “I like the challenge,” he told me. “And I haven’t found a barn yet that I couldn’t fix.”

At one time his seven sons chipped in, helping him tighten the wind-humming cables, rig up heavy timber braces, and work the greasy jacks possessing Herculean lifting powers. Back then, Chamberlain’s little notebook tucked in the wide pocket between the suspenders of his bib overalls had 60 or 70 barns on his waiting list.

But as time past the boys grew up and he slowed down.

Chamberlain told me he’d brought about 4,000 barns back to plumb in the 40 years he’s been at it. During that time, he’s discovered the hard way that straightening old barns was dangerous. “I’ve had eight broken ribs and two skull fractures,” he joked.

He grew up on a ranch near White River, SD, raised around skittish cattle and mean horses that were adept at pawing, kicking, and biting. “There was always a kicked-in corral to fix, so I learned about bracing and using big timber as a boy,” he said.

Later, he taught school in White River, then worked as a carpenter in the Dupree area. After that he managed a Waubay lumberyard where he learned even more about the strengths and weaknesses of wood.

Chamberlain’s barn-straightening career began one day after a vicious storm dropped down on the Waubay area and damaged many farm buildings. A local insurance adjuster asked Chamberlain’s wife Blanche if she knew anyone who could straighten a leaning barn.

She volunteered Ray.

“Heck, I’d never done anything like that before,” Chamberlain said, “but she told him I could fix anything.” He accepted and learned from his mistakes. But he also learned how to counteract the forces of gravity, and he bought some valuable old barn straightening equipment from a barn straightener who was clearing out his tool shed and heading for retirement. Since then, Ray’s inventive mind has also crafted other helpful barn straightening tools.

I went with Ray on one of his barn job. He had 600 or 700 feet of half-inch cable, various and sundry pulleys, ladders of every length, and a collection of railroad ties and heavy timber. He uses hand winches that could be coaxed into applying about 70,000 pounds of barn pulling power. He knew where to anchor cables in just the right places.

He’s gone now, and so is the almost lost art of barn straightening.

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