Jim Shane has had barn envy for years. He’s always wanted to have a barn and he’s always known that should he build one, he’d want it to be constructed by the Amish from Pennsylvania Dutch country. “Just look at the craftsmanship,” said Shane, “it’s incredible.”
Shane has been involved in real estate development for many years, and lately he and his wife Rosalie have been spending more and more time at their old Edgartown sea captain’s home they purchased in 1979.
A few years ago Shane was looking around for another project to take on and Rosalie said that if he was going to do something, he might as well do it here on the Island. He’s always been interested in bringing old homes back to life, and an old farmhouse out on Katama Road in Edgartown caught his eye.
What’s more, there was enough room on the land to construct the barn he’d always wanted. But how do you go about making that Amish connection?
Shane admired the barn that was built to house the Bad Martha Brewery on Upper Main Street in Edgartown, and come to find out, it was built by Riehl Construction of New Holland, Pa., in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, owned and operated by Ephraim “Eph” Riehl and his family.
Shane recalled calling up Eph right after the presidential election in 2016. “So Eph,” said Shane, “did you stay up late watching the election last night?”
“We don’t have television,” said Eph. Let alone a fax machine or a computer — he barely had electricity. He was Amish.
As Shane would find out, most of the Amish boys only go to school until the eighth grade and then they go into the trades. When they’re 18, they choose whether they want to live by the tenets of the Amish faith or not. “Some young people don’t drive,” Shane said, “and some do.” In the case of Shane’s crew, there was a non-Amish designated driver and they had one cell phone to go around.
After the election, Shane decided to make the trip to New Holland and talk to Ephraim Riehl face-to-face. They discussed the barn and then Riehl would hand-sketch each section of the plans and mail them back to Shane for approval. Old school — no CAD drawings, no email.
Shane’s first barn was completed last spring; he immediately went to work restoring another farmhouse just up Katama Road and planning another barn, which was raised just last week. This barn was larger than the first: 24 feet by 32 feet.
A crew of seven came up from Pennsylvania, most of whom were related to the Riehls — there are eight Riehl brothers and seven are in the company.
“We’ve done jobs on the Island before,” said crew member Allen Riehl. It turns out they’ve done about 15 jobs on Martha’s Vineyard alone.
“We build whatever, as long as it’s timber frame,” Riehl said.
“They all arrived on the 9:30 boat Monday morning,” Shane said, “and they were here working by 11.”
All the lumber is precut in New Holland and trucked up. The barns are post-and-beam construction and each section is assembled by one person (except when they need help lifting) — all the fastenings are done with wooden pegs. The collar ties are hand-forged in Pennsylvania. The frame is pine or fir and the exterior siding is cedar, fastened with nails.
When asked how they organized the build, Allen Riehl said jokingly, “We all try to act like we know what’s going on . . . it all gets done.”
“By the end of the day,” Shane said, “the barn will be totally enclosed, and by Wednesday they’ll put in the loft and the stairs. Two and a half days total!”
Shane had nothing but praise for the way the whole operation ran. “They’re so much fun to work with,” he said. From the time the frame is up and enclosed, Shane estimates it will be another two months before local contractors shingle the roof, complete the finish work, and install the plumbing and electric.
“The barn raising went really smoothly,” said Shane, something that has not always been the case in his experience of building on the Island.
“Building on the Island is not for the faint of heart,” Shane said. “The problem is that the trades will never say no to a new job. They’ll stretch you out forever . . . if you’re onsite they’ll show up but otherwise, no. I’m lucky, my plumber and my electrician are fabulous . . . but as for finish carpenters . . . it’s very frustrating.”
As for the price of working with the Amish: “My sense is that the total cost of this barn erected would be about the cost for just the materials on the Island.”
Shane doesn’t rule out working with Riehl Construction in the future. “I’ve worked with them on two barns and hope there’ll be many more. I really like the idea of creating something like this and one day my grandkids will come by with their kids and say, ‘Crazy Papa had the Amish build this.’”