The Manson Barn

Visitors who were here in the 1970s or ’80s might remember the shabby sheep barn that once stood behind the Visitor Center. They are often surprised to learn that the neat little barn they see now is the same building, restored to its original 1862 condition. But when restoration began in 1992, the barn held some surprises.

Donald Manson’s house was above the flood waters. At least he had that much good fortune. But his farmstead down on the floodplain, like the neighboring town of Champoeg, had been completely washed away by the great 1861 Willamette River flood. Barn, equipment, animals, and harvested crops were all gone. It was a severe blow for a man in his 60s.

Manson, a Scot, had spent most of his working life as an officer in the Hudson’s Bay Company, serving in numerous posts throughout the Pacific Northwest, including Fort Vancouver. His familiarity with the Champoeg area dated back to the 1820s, when he had married Felicité Lucier, a Champoeg girl. And since his in-laws continued to live there for many years, we can guess that he must have known about Champoeg’s tendency to flood.

Nonetheless, he had bought Robert Newell’s old farm on the floodplain, just east of the town. In 1858 he brought Felicité and their five younger children to Champoeg. Three years later the river nearly wiped him out.

One of Manson’s first acts of recovery in 1862 was to build a new barn above the reach of any possible flooding. This is the barn that still stands behind the Visitor Center. He must have gotten back on his feet financially, because he soon managed to build a modest new house as well. It was located about where the Visitor Center now stands.

Key Concepts:

  • Restoration of Donald Manson’s barn began in 1992, after years of changes and deterioration had made it almost unrecognizable.
  • During restoration it was discovered that the barn’s interior structure is probably much older than 1862, the year the barn was erected.
  • We speculate that Manson salvaged an existing building from the wreckage of the 1861 flood. That building could possibly date from the 1840s or even the 1830s.

The Ravages of Time

The years went on. The Mansons passed away, leaving the farm to a daughter. The house burned in 1931. The barn became part of the neighboring Zorn farm.

As farming needs changed, so did the barn. Originally designed for the harvesting and storing of wheat, the barn later housed cattle, and then sheep. A mechanical hay fork was installed to bring hay in at the second floor. Sheds were attached, extending out over the original doors. A cupola was added to the roof, and later removed again. The barn was electrified.

And time took its toll. The floor and its supporting timbers, which sat directly on the damp ground, rotted away completely. So did most of the sills—the timbers that formed the foundation. (It was a wonder that the barn didn’t collapse.) The wooden shingles of the roof were replaced by corrugated metal. In 1962, the Columbus Day storm completely blew off a section of roof; it was repaired with old telephone poles.

When part of the Zorn farm was incorporated into the park in the early 1970s, the old barn came with it. Although it was known to be the Manson barn, little thought was given to its historical value. It continued to house sheep, and it continued to deteriorate.

Rescued in the Nick of Time

Jump ahead 20 years. Dennis Wiley of Oregon Parks and Recreation, and once the Champoeg Park Historian, knew that the park had a hidden gem: one of the oldest barns that still existed in Oregon. In fact, it was unique. It was the only remaining “side-entry wheat barn with threshing floor” in the state. Something needed to be done soon, and he found the funds for restoration. He also found Gregg Olson.

Olson had a complete set of 19th-century woodworking skills, as well as knowledge of building techniques in different eras. When he evaluated the barn to determine what needed to be done, he noticed a number of features that seemed to be out of place— beside the electricity and the telephone poles.

What he first noticed was the size of the posts and beams—the large timbers that hold the building up. Many Oregon barns had been built during the 1860s, owing to the flood. In those barns, the posts (the upright timbers) were commonly 10 inches by 10 inches, while the beams (the horizontal timbers) were usually 8 inches by 10 inches.

In the Manson barn, however, both the posts and the beams are 12 inches by 12 inches. The one exception—the central beam which spans the width of the barn—is 8 inches by 16 inches at its largest point. Although these large dimensions had been common early in the 19th century and before, by the 1860s it was well known that they were not necessary, and simply added to the weight and cost of the barn. Yet here they were in an 1862 barn.

Where the rafters meet at the peak of the roof, Olson found the remains of a “ridge beam,” most of which had been removed to make room for the mechanical hay fork. Again, by the 1860s it had been found that having a heavy, expensive ridge beam was not necessary.

Olson also found evidence that the original roof may have been tied on with rope, rather than being nailed. If so, it would have been because nails were not yet readily available. Factory-made nails started shipping to Oregon in 1842, and were plentiful in the 1860s. Documentation is scanty, but the only building known for certain to have a tied-on roof was the Willamette Mission, constructed in 1834.

A Mystery Revealed?

What is the explanation? It is believed that rather than starting from scratch with a wholly new barn, Donald Manson probably salvaged an existing building from the flood wreckage, saving both time and money. Some of the floating Champoeg buildings had caught in a grove of trees near the east end of the Manson farm. It is likely that he selected one of these, disassembled it, and reassembled it at the new site.

Other clues support this idea. In the barn’s construction Olson saw evidence of two different builders. One did slow, meticulous, almost medieval work, using old-fashioned techniques and as much time as he cared to take. This is the man who had made the posts and beams. The other man was in a hurry. He completed the barn, positioning and hanging the doors, and installing the roof, siding, and floor. His work was rough—adequate for the job, but nothing more.

Sensibly, this man put the doors in the center of the side walls where they were most useful. But this is not where they had always been. When you visit the barn, look at the beams above either pair of doors. You will see a rectangular hole called a “mortise” (pronounced “MOR-tis”). A 12 by 12 post once ran up to this mortise. Since this would have blocked the doors, it’s safe to say that the doors must originally have been someplace else.

There are other empty mortises as well. The most puzzling one is at about chest height in the post beside the doors facing the Visitor Center. It serves no purpose that anyone has been able to suggest. A beam in this mortise would block the door and angle uselessly across the room. Yet there is clear evidence that it was once used.

Finding the Clues

Although Donald Manson erected his barn in 1862, there is strong evidence that he started with an older, salvaged building that came from somewhere else. Visitors can see some of the clues.

  • The supporting timbers are too large. Posts (the upright timbers) are 12 inches by 12 inches instead of the usual 10 by 10. Most of the beams (horizontal timbers) are also 12 by 12, rather than 8 by 10. By the 1860s, builders had learned that smaller sizes saved money and worked just as well. Visual evidence also shows that the lower end of a post had to be replaced.
  • A ridge beam supports the peak of the roof. Ridge beams were no longer used in the mid-19th century. (In the East, they had gone out of fashion by about 1800.)
  • Mortises—rectangular holes that once held the upper ends of posts—can be seen over both doors. The doors must originally have been somewhere else, suggesting that the building had once been used in a different way. Other mortises show evidence of being used, but have no apparent purpose in this building.
  • One beam, unlike others, is 16 inches at the center and gracefully tapers toward the ends. All the timbers were carefully hewed, with axe and broadaxe, by a master builder who took his time.
  • The nailers, on the other hand, are rough and were done in a hurry. They were probably made by a different builder—perhaps the one who put up the barn in 1862.

The Unsatisfying Conclusion

It would be wonderful to draw a confident conclusion about Manson’s barn. Unfortunately, we can’t. The evidence points to an older, pre-1862 building, likely salvaged from the flood wreckage. If so, it might have been Manson’s old barn, someone else’s barn, or another type of building entirely. The evidence suggests a building possibly constructed in the 1840s, or even in the 1830s when Oregon farming began. The building may be a Champoeg town building that we know about—one that is historically important in its own right. And finally, this might be the oldest building left standing in Oregon.

But the evidence only suggests these possibilities, and nothing is certain. For now, we can only hope that someday new evidence will be found that can tell us more about Manson’s barn.

Further Reading

  • To learn more about the 1861 flood, read the handouts called “The End of the Town of Champoeg,” “River Rivals: Champoeg and Butteville,” and “A Personal Account of the 1861 Flood as Experienced by Eight-year-old Mary Higley.”
  • For a fascinating look into the world of old barns, old tools, and the structures and farm life of the past, search for books by Eric Sloane. Titles include An Age of Barns, A Reverence for Wood, and Our Vanishing Landscape.
  • Champoeg: Place of Transition by John A. Hussey, printed by the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, 1967. This book is our primary source of historical information about Champoeg, including Donald Manson, Felicité Lucier Manson, and the challenges they met here. Although out of print, it can be found in libraries and in used book stores such as Powell’s Books.