1837 Barn

This barn near the main entrance to Malabar Farm State Park was built around 1837, according to tree-ring studies of its beams. Lightning rods have helped it survive 183 years of use. In August 1861, Harvey Devoe wrote in his diary about two nearby farmers who lost everything when lightning struck their barns.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the eighth installment in our year-long examination of the adventures of Knox County farmer Harvey Devoe, who kept a diary for the year 1861, which has been annotated and published by historian Alan Borer and is available through online retailers.  The series began on Jan. 4It continued on Feb. 1March 7April 4May 2June 6 and July 4. Harvey's spelling and punctuation have been left as they originally appear in the diary.

Early August of 1861 brought a continuation of hot and dry weather, according to Harvey Devoe's daily record, kept in his diary. The young farmer was working hard to make his first year of independent farming a success, but the weather was making it difficult.

Though rain was lacking, energy was in the air, and that proved dangerous. Not once but twice, Harvey noted stories of nearby farmers who lost their barns to lightning strikes from storms that exploded but offered little in the way of precipitation.

Wooden Barn Structure

Whereas today, metal gates are used, in the mid-1800s, even the gates inside the barn would have been made out of wood. This made the tall structures dangerously vulnerable to fire, which could be set by a direct lightning strike.

First, a farmer named Abraham Long, who lived just over the Richland County line, lost his barn to a fire caused by a ferocious lightning strike on Saturday, Aug. 3. According to a news report of the incident, Long lost a “large amount of grain, wool, six sets of harness, and many other valuable items. Total loss about $1,500 – no insurance.” Remember, $1,500 in 1861 was a family's fortune.

Just five days later, it happened again. According to the report in the Democratic Banner: “the barn of our esteemed friend A. B. Merrin, on the Mansfield Road, in Berlin Township, was struck by lightning, and in a moment of time the building and contents were in flames. We regret to learn that Mr. Merrin's loss is very heavy, the barn having but a few days previously been filled with grain, hay, wool, etc., but little of which was saved.”

By the 1871 county map, Merrin cannot be found. That barn fire probably ended the family's farm.

Lightning was a 19th-century farmer's terror. By this point in history, barns had been increased in size to allow for ample storage space. But that also meant that the largely wooden structures were often the tallest things on a farm, making them vulnerable to electric discharges from thunderstorms.

Ben Franklin

Ben Franklin

In 1752, Benjamin Franklin had invented lightning rods to be placed atop barns and other tall structures to attract and divert electrical charges, but these articles do not say if these early Ohio farmers had the fairly newfangled devices. Harvey Devoe never mentions them.

By Sunday, Aug. 11, all Harvey could laconically report was, “Corn needs rain.” But at this point, the weather pattern began to shift.

First came a few days of dry, chilly weather, which Harvey spent shoveling manure. Over the next couple of weeks, violent dry storms were replaced by at least a few gentle, soaking rains, saving what had looked in early August like a complete bust season for farmers.

Hussey's Reaping Machine

By 1861, reaping machines were becoming common. It isn't known if Harvey's neighbor had one. This picture shows the reaping machine promoted by Obed Hussey, which got its start in Ohio. By the Civil War, though, Hussey's company was about to go under.

Farm work for Harvey during this month including helping the Cummings family, next door, bind oats. He also spent more time shaving down wooden shingles to roof his newly-built kitchen, as discussed previously.

He calculated by the end of August that he had hand-shaved 1,100 shingles. He also spent some time grinding and mixing paint so he could paint his wagon. One wonders what color he was making, because at one point he said that he had “got to much blue and spoilt it.”

He also tried putting a stripe down the side of the wagon, but didn't like how it turned out and painted over it.

McCormick's Reaper & Binder:

Cyrus McCormick made a reaper similar to Hussey's, and he was first, but it took him longer to develop his product. By the 1880s, McCormick's reaper could also bind, streamlining the harvesting process.

Late in the month, Harvey had a Charly horse but he got rid of it, by selling it. Literally, he sold a horse named Charly to local farmer Asa Brown for $70, which price suggests it was a fine animal indeed.

He also spent some time hauling around photography equipment for his younger brother Edward, who had taken an interest in the new technology. Whether any of Edward's photographs have survived is unknown, and it may be that he didn't have a chance to get good at photography, for soon Edward would be leaving serve in the Civil War, where he'd spend the duration of the conflict.

The brothers closed the month by attending a supper organized by “the ladies of Fredericktown” for the army volunteers.

Fredericktown Main Street

This vintage postcard image shows downtown Fredericktown a few decades after Harvey Devoe's diary. Harvey doesn't say where the dinner celebrating young volunteer soldiers was held. It could have been in the square or in one of the local churches.

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