By Jack Russillo
Member of the Knapp family
By no means was Orcas Island’s most northeast barn a standout when it was built circa 1890, after Danish immigrant James Jorgensen homesteaded the land. It was a medium-sized, rectangle-shaped structure built decades after the island started being transformed and farmed by Euro-American settlers.
Today, the barn holds significance. After a few turnovers in ownership and multiple structural additions across more than 130 years, the original building still stands there as the oldest in-use barn on Orcas Island, although you might not know it by the looks of it. That’s because it just got a makeover.
The barn, in a field just north of Buckhorn Road on the Knapp Family Farm, was recently awarded a grant from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation to support its restoration. The barn met one of the main application requirements when Gene Knapp applied for it to be added to Washington’s Heritage Barn Register in 2007, the program’s first year.
It is now one of more than 800 heritage barns across the state, one of nine in San Juan County and one of three on Orcas. The old barn deserved the designation, but needed some care. More than a century of being on the frontlines of storms blowing in from the northeast, baking in the summer sun, and providing shelter for various farm animals took a toll.
When the Knapp family applied for the grant in the winter of 2021, there were many issues: half of the roof needed to be replaced, along with most of the rafters and framing; the foundation on all four sides needed to be redone; wood flooring had to be ripped out and replaced; doors and windows required repair. The list goes on.
After months of nervous waiting, the good news came that the family’s grant application was accepted, which provided the momentum needed to get the restoration underway.
The Knapp family began work in July 2022 and they’re on track to be completed in time for the June 2023 deadline. While you may have to squint on a sunny day to look at the shiny new roof, the barn still retains its charming character and original features.
When the broken-gable style barn was first constructed, some of the framing beams in the main section of the barn were repurposed from the original ferry dock on the north side of the island sometime in the early 1900s, as well as some salvaged beams from a nearby bridge and some old wood ships from that era. These parts and others are still part of the barn, preserving local history and materials. The rest of the wood from when the barn was first built was sourced locally from untreated island fir, which is what was also used for the recent restoration. Funded by the recent grant, new roof beams, skip sheathing, floor boards, wall panels, and other timber were milled on the farm using timber from the property. Trees for new rafters were felled and debarked in the Knapp’s forestland.
Now that the heritage barn has been restored with some modern upgrades to its structural integrity, it just needs a few years to weather and it will look like an old barn once more.
This summer, while it’s fresh and shiny, the Knapp family will be partnering with the Orcas Island Historical Society to host an event to commemorate the barn project’s completion. Open to the public on Saturday, July 22nd, all are welcome to attend the party at the Knapp Family Farm. Stay tuned for more details on this summertime community celebration.