This amazing footage of an Amish barn raising has been making the blog rounds. As fascinating as it is, the things about this activity that you cannot see in the video are of equal interest. But before we get to that, let's see the vid:
Ohio-based non-Amishman Scott Miller secured permission to record the activity, likely because he pitched in to help on the ten-hour job. And while all you see in the video are men, an Amish barn-raising is actually an all-hands-on-deck affair. Attendance is mandatory in the community, though the Amish don't view "mandatory" as the pejorative we selfish Americans do: "We enjoy barn raisings," an Amish farmer told writer Gene Logsdon in 1983. "So many come to work that no one has to work very hard. And we get in a good visit."
That's because to the Amish, a barn-raising falls into the category of activity known as a "frolic," a combination of group labor and social mixing, which builds and solidifies the community as surely as it does the barn. All able-bodied members of the settlement are in attendance, meaning there can be more than a hundred families on hand, and with Amish families averaging eight children each, you can do the math. It's not difficult to see that what might take a conventional construction crew armed with cranes a month or more to complete this task, start to finish, is performed by the Amish in a week or so.
All have a role to play regardless of age and gender. The younger, more able-bodied men are the ones you see clambering up and down the structure. The older men whose climbing days are behind them stay down below, passing up supplies, and the most experienced serve as foremen. The entire building operation is "typically led by one or two master Amish 'engineers,' who lay out plans for the barn and assure the materials are available," according to Amish America.
The community's women are also on-site, preparing the gargantuan feast and snacks required to feed this mass gathering, while girls carry the plates out at mealtime, ferry juice jugs, and assist with the cleaning up.
Boys not yet old enough to participate are put to lesser tasks like fetching tools or de-nailing old boards that will be re-used, while the youngest boys are on hand to watch and learn. By the time an Amish boy has grown to a man he has observed every stage of multiple barn-raisings, has learned the tools and now has the education needed to effectively pitch in. "They like to work with wood, and they learn the niceties of barn-building at an early age," wrote Helen Forrest McKee in a 1978 article on the phenomenon. And among the children "There is no fighting or crying and no need for an adult to supervise them."
In Lodgson's aforementioned article, he had encountered an Amish community in Ohio's Holmes County that had been devastated by a tornado. In twenty minutes the tornado had "sliced through Amish farmsteads, capriciously reducing barns to kindling" and "destroyed at least fifteen acres of mature forest a hundred years or more in the growing, and four barns that represented the collected architectural wisdom of several centuries of rural tradition."
But what followed in the wake of the tornado during the next three weeks was just as awesome as the wind itself. In that time—three weeks—the forest devastation was sawed into lumber and transformed into four big new barns. No massive effort of bulldozers, cranes, semi-trucks, or the National Guard was involved. The surrounding Amish community rolled up its sleeves, hitched up its horses and did it all. Nor were the barns the quick-fix modern structures of sheet metal hung on posts stuck in the ground. They were massive three-story affairs of post-and-beam framing, held together with hundreds of hand-hewn mortises and tenons.
A building contractor, walking through the last of the barns to be completed, could only shake his head in disbelief. Even with a beefed-up crew, it would have taken him most of the summer to build this barn alone and it would have cost the farmer $100,000, if in fact he could have found such huge girder beams at any price.
The Amish farmer who was the recipient of this new barn smiled. The structure, complete with donated hay, grain, and animals to replace all that was destroyed by the storm, cost him "about thirty thousand dollars, out-of-pocket money"--most of that funded by his Amish Church's own internal insurance arrangement. "We give each other our labor," he said. "That's our way. In the giving, nothing is lost, though, and much is gained."
Interestingly enough non-Amish reporter Tom Abate, who once participated in an Amish barn-raising, draws a parallel between that activity and the communal websites Wikipedia, YouTube, Digg and Flickr: "In each instance," he writes, "the groundwork for success was laid in advance by smaller teams that created the structures that could scale as more people show up."