Steve Potwin surveys the mortise and tenon joinery of a barn near Cave Junction that was built in 1886, hewed by a broadax and pegged together with wooden pegs. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Bob Pennell

Old barn might have a future

CAVE JUNCTION — Steve Potwin couldn't help but smile when he saw the weathered twine dangling from the massive beam in the historic barn.

"My granddad baled hay and he always saved the twine," said Potwin of his maternal grandfather, Harry Smith. "That twine up there on that beam, I'd be willing to bet money he hung those."

But it isn't the twine that brought Potwin, 61, to this barn on Highway 46 some three miles east of Cave Junction.

The Medford resident was visiting the old barn with its mortise and tenon joinery to discuss its future with representatives of the Oregon Department of Transportation, the State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service. In 1991, the family gave ODOT 16.5 acres that includes the barn. The property is along what is known as the Caves Highway, which leads to Oregon Caves National Monument.

They want the state to create an historic wayside with the property, which forms a narrow ribbon along the highway beginning at the intersection of Smith-Sawyer Road, a road named after Potwin's ancestors.

Believed to have been built in 1886, the barn is constructed of 12-inch square beams hewed by broadaxes and whose joints are held together with round wooden pegs. The old barn also has its share of square nails.

For more than 90 years, the barn was a pivotal part of the Smith family farming spread in the Sucker Creek drainage.

"Ora Smith, my great grandfather, bought this property in 1902," Potwin said. "I played in this barn as a kid. I spent a good share of my formative summers on this farm."

"This was the old straw barn," said his mother, Margaret Smith Potwin Boyd, 82, also of Medford, who was reared on the family farm which once covered 120 acres and had water rights to Sucker Creek.

Her father was the early-day farmer Harry Smith; her mother was Effie Smith, a former teacher and visionary who fought to establish the Rough and Ready Botanical Wayside in 1938 along Highway 199 just north of O'Brien.

For the past 75 years, the botanical diversity at the wayside has drawn botanists and plant lovers the world over. Effie Smith also was one of the founders of the Illinois Valley Garden Club, circa 1927.

With highway waysides part of a family tradition, the family hopes to follow the steps of their feisty matriarch.

"It was used as a barn until ODOT received the property as a gift from our family," said Potwin, a retired forester. "The intent was that ODOT would create an historic and scenic wayside. We wanted to create a wayside that honored the pioneers, the gold rush and early farmers."

He believes the old barn will fit nicely with a cultural byway that the Park Service and U.S. Forest Service are putting together for visitors traveling to the popular Oregon Caves National Monument located at the eastern end of the highway some 18 miles out of Cave Junction. The byway will highlight significant cultural and historical points of interest.

"My main concern now is that we don't wait too long," Potwin said, citing the deteriorating condition of the barn. "But I also understand this is a tough budgetary time."

However, after checking out the barn, Joy Sears, a restoration specialist with the State Historic Preservation Office, figured it could be preserved.

"It definitely is suffering from a lack of maintenance but it is not so far gone that it's a lost cause," she observed. "I've seen old structures restored that were in a lot worse shape than this one. It was built sturdy.

"We will be working with ODOT on an analysis of the work needed," Sears said. "Part of that will be coming up with priorities on the work that needs to be done."

The agencies also will look for ways to finance the project through grants and other funding that may be available, she said, adding that the state agencies will work closely with the Park Service on the project.

"Old barns like this are getting fewer and fewer every year," she said, referring to the mortise and tenon construction, in which a square peg carved out of the end of a beam is inserted into a hole carved in the adjoining beam.

The historic wayside would augment the cultural byway along the highway, said John Roth, natural resource specialist at the Oregon Caves.

"We would like to see this happen," he said of the proposal. "We can offer limited support for it."

A very preliminary rough estimate puts the cost of restoration at about $100,000, he said.

"The vertical posts are in pretty good shape," he said. "But the horizontal beams would have to be replaced. They could be replaced in kind."

Any barn dating back to the late 1800s is fairly rare in western Oregon, said Peggy Moretti, executive director of the Historic Preservation League of Oregon based in Portland. A heritage barn task force formed last year advocates for old barn preservation across Oregon and to assist owners of barns with rehabilitation and documentation of the structures.

"The significance of the property is not just the structure but also includes the history and the stories of the place," she said. "The soul of a place is embodied in its old buildings."

The structure is listed as the oldest still-standing barn of its kind in Josephine County, noted Brandon Spencer-Hartle, the league's field programs manager.

"We would like to see them preserve it," Moretti said. "These old structures have great value in terms of craftsmanship. They have lessons to teach. "

Including it in an historic wayside is an excellent idea, she said.

"Cultural tourism is becoming very valuable to counties," she said. "It gives visitors a place to stop and enjoy the area, adding value to their experience. They contribute to the local economy."

On the day that Potwin and his mother met the state and Park Service officials at the barn, two tourists stopped by earlier to snap a photograph of the old structure.

"That happens all the time when we come out here," Potwin said. "People are interested in these old barns."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or

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