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Builder brings craftsmanship to barn construction Moses Riehl, fellow Amish workers use old methods


Most people don't get worked up over man-made structures designed to house tractors, lawn mowers and other tools.

But the 26-by-44-foot stick-frame shed that Groftdale Barns' Moses Riehl built left homebuilder Patrick Hagan absolutely awe-struck. "Its structure is just beautiful, and his work is really fantastic," Hagan said.

Although Moses Riehl and his fellow Amish builders still get around pretty much by horse and buggy and frequently eschew other modern devices, they have garnered a reputation up and down the East Coast for fine craftsmanship, beautiful buildings -- often, but not exclusively, barns -- and a work ethic few can


And, while Riehl still uses old-style methods of building, he is also comfortable with modern equipment.

"For example, when it comes to making sure that a building is square, Riehl doesn't use transits to square up his buildings," said Scott Hagan, Patrick's brother and partner in the Timonium home building firm, Hagan and Hamilton. "Instead, he uses the old diagonal method of putting pins in the ground and then uses string to lay everything out."

"Squaring off your building with string is still a real useful technique," said Riehl, "although some people are now using lasers."

Although Riehl avoids lasers, he and his fellow Amish builders do employ electrical and hydraulic equipment in their work.

So old is not necessarily incompatible with new.

"The Amish are famous for their barns, and they do things the right way, the old way," said Charles Evans, the Upperco resident who hired Groftdale to build the shed that awed the Hagan brothers. "With Groftdale, you get work that is lasting."

Said Evans: "They were just really getting well-known about four or five years ago, and I think they have recently just exploded by word of mouth.

"I gave them the original design for the shed, and we worked together in finishing it. Their product is of great quality, and the price is excellent."

And, to successfully complete his work, which is considerably more extensive than creating or restoring barns and sheds, Riehl must be up to meeting modern-day building and fire codes.

"You have to meet permitting and licensing requirements, and you have to pass inspection," Riehl said. "We take the old-fashioned techniques and blend them with the new when we build these days."

The Strasburg, Pa.-based company has done work that includes converting an entire barn at the Geneva Farm Golf Course, just outside Baltimore, into offices and a banquet hall.

Established in 1984, Groftdale Barns is strictly Amish-run and employs 10 to 12 builders. Frequently, they will manufacture various pieces of a building in their Strasburg workshop and put together the rest of the structure at the permanent site.

Named after Jacob Amman, a 17th-century Swiss Mennonite bishop, the Amish are an orthodox Anabaptist sect whose members today are primarily located in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Groftdale also builds swimming pools, and has restored a hotel that dates to 1750. "We ended up making a 5-foot cellar into a 9-foot cellar," Riehl said. "We restored things back to today's standards."

But barns really capture Riehl's imagination.

He uses a lot of oak for the frame and solid board, as opposed to ply board.

"We used a board-and-batten technique, where boards are cut and butted together, which makes the barn more weather-tight," Riehl said.

For the basic structure he relies on oak because it is a stronger wood, while Northeastern white pine, which is more weather-resistant, is put on the outside.

"The lumber they use comes directly from the sawmill and is very rough-looking, very rustic," said Scott Hagan. "It gives the barn TC an old-fashioned feel."

Riehl would agree.

"We try to maintain the old rustic quality of a building and not have something that looks as though it is just slapped together," he says.

Although the glass that Groftdale uses in its barns is new, it is deliberately crafted to look like much older window panes.

The Amish build using a post-and-beam construction, where posts are set into the ground, rather than on top of a foundation. Then they run the nailers for their siding horizontally.

"It is just a different way of building, sort of an old-fashioned approach to today's standards in construction," Hagan said. "It's a unique approach that you don't see very often."

In addition to building barns, Riehl has also restored a variety of old barns, including a bank barn and another for a community college. "One of them has two levels: one is for thrashing and storing hay and grain, while the other level is for the cows and horses," Riehl said.

And he has built barns where the horses have the ground floor, while the groom has the apartment upstairs; Riehl has built barns to house as many as 100 horses.

Groftdale workers also have restored a mortise-and-tenon barn, a style of building that used to be popular. In essence, mortise meets tenon much as hand meets kid glove -- creating a perfectly snug fit. Wooden pegs then provide additional stability and strength.

"These kinds of barns are becoming more popular again," Riehl said.

"People really want to preserve these old barns," Riehl said. "Some of the old barns were built by some really great craftsmen, and we are trying to preserve that craftsmanship."

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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