Rustic Barn eyesore will become historic treasure for Nellis family homestead

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Corey Nellis reaches for refuse as he works on Feb. 15 to dismantle the Rustic Barn on Route 20 in Guilderland. Behind him is one of the original hand-hewn timbers that formed the frame of the 1700s barn.

GUILDERLAND — One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

The old adage applies to the Rustic Barn on Route 20, long considered an eyesore by many in town.

It is currently being dismantled by the Nellis brothers who will reconstruct it on their family homestead in Fort Plain, an hour’s drive east of where it was built, said Corey Nellis.

The historic Dutch barn in what is now Guilderland was built before the American Revolution, Nellis said, with hand-hewn chestnut beams.

The American chestnut — once called the redwood of the East because of its huge size — was wiped out by blight more than a century ago.

Native Americans valued the abundant chestnut trees for their nuts and the ecosystems they provided for deer, squirrels, turkey, and bear. Later, European settlers used the massive trees — which were straight-grained and resisted rot — for building homes and fences as well as barns and, later, for railroad ties and utility poles.

At least one of the barn’s massive hand-hewn timbers is American elm — a tree that grew to be 100 feet tall before it, too, was decimated by disease. A beam from the barn with a tenon joint shows carved initials, presumably of the barn’s builders, and a date of “’74,” which the Nellis brothers believe is 1774, making the Rustic Barn 250 years old.

“There are wooden hinges on the doors,” said Corey Nellis. “This barn has a lot of history.”

“I’m glad it’s being preserved,” Ryan Caruso, who owns the property, told The Enterprise this week. “That was our ultimate goal.”

Caruso said he learned about the Nellis brothers from an Enterprise article earlier this year on a barn they dismantled in Knox.

The Rustic Barn has been empty since its owner, Herbert Young, who sold wood stoves, antiques, and lawn-care products out of the property, died in 2013; he had no children. In Young’s final years, when he was in a nursing home, the property fell into tax arrears.

The current assessment roll for Guilderland still lists Herbert Young as the owner of the one-acre Rustic Barn property at 4852 Western Turnpike and gives it a full-market value of $121,176.

In 2018, Ryan Caruso and his family moved to property neighboring the Rustic Barn, into what had been the old Fullers post office and general store, built in 1870. Since moving into their home, the Carusos have cleaned up their own property as well as refuse from the neighboring Rustic Barn property.

Late in 2018, Ryan Caruso sent photos to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation because he was concerned about chemicals he had come across —  many large bags of fertilizer near the stream between the two properties as well as chemicals in and around the Rustic Barn house.

The stream feeds into the Watervliet Reservoir, which is Guilderland’s major source of drinking water.

The DEC subsequently conducted a cleanup of the site.

Last year, Caruso told The Enterprise, “Since the first DEC cleanup in 2018, I had them come a second time in 2020 as part of DEC’s Clean Sweep program and they removed the remaining chemicals from the property. This was another 2-3 tons of loose chemicals, mostly fertilizer and pesticides, stored upstairs in the barn.”

A letter that Caruso and his wife, Lucinda, wrote to the county last year said in part, “Over 90% of the roof has collapsed and the building is filled with black mold that emanates out to our surrounding area. The mold itself has caused health problems for our family due to it drifting onto our property.”

The letter went on to cite building restrictions from the town and stated, “Further, CSX maintains a right-of-way along the northwest side of the property also depreciating the value. The County has already tried to auction this property off three times in the past and received zero bids.

“Lastly, the quotes we have obtained to demolish the structure and remediate that site are in excess of $100,000. This figure could be even higher given the unknown environmental factors that may be present.”

Ultimately, the county sold the Rustic Barn property to the Carusos for $500.


“Rehoming” barns

Earlier this year, the Nellis Brothers dismantled two Dutch barns in the Hilltowns — one in Knox and the other in Berne — that will join a third Dutch barn from New Jersey and be reassembled in Nebraska by an agricultural businessman, who, motivated by his own appreciation of the Dutch style, will maintain the three barns as office spaces. 

“It’ll be rebuilt in a better spot, and it’s … going to last another 200 years without doing anything to it,” Corey Nellis told The Enterprise in January as he worked to dismantle the Shultes-Malcolm barn in Knox.

Rebuilding the barns is easy, since they fit together “like a puzzle,” Nellis said, but they require care to take apart without stressing and breaking the lumber. He described it as a rare art form practiced by just three companies in New York state to his knowledge, including his. 

Nellis said that his family were Dutch-German settlers who came to the New World in 1640, establishing what is now the village of Nelliston. As Dutch-Germans he said his ancestors “had a lot to do with … building the Dutch barns ….” 

The barn the Nellises are currently dismantling in Guilderland, Corey Nellis said, will replace a Dutch barn that stood on the property in Fort Plain now owned by Justin Nellis, which had once belonged to their great-great-grandmother. It will be supplemented with pieces from other historic barns, he said.

In the 1970s, a half-century ago, The Enterprise, through the work of the late John Wolcott, mapped the remaining 18th-Century Dutch barns in Guilderland, which were typically built a half-century before the Dutch barns in the Hilltowns.

In 1988, an Eagle Scout, Chip Foster, documented 21 Dutch barns remaining in town; he was thrilled to find the date 1779 carved into one of them.

The timbers that framed Dutch barns can be up to 30 feet long and a foot or two wide, and were cut from virgin forests that no longer exist, often of yellow pine, which is now extinct. The center H frame, with its mortise-and tenon joints, can move with the winds and bear great loads.

A horse-drawn wagon could drive through the center space, which was also used for threshing. Some Dutch barns in the New World were built a century before the American Revolution.

When The Enterprise asked Corey Nellis this week about the value of the historic barn now owned by the Carusos, he said, “It’s over 75-percent deteriorated … If I wanted to sell it, I could get maybe $5,000. We’ve worked out a deal with Ryan where we’re putting the rest of the structure in a Dumpster he’s providing.”

Caruso confirmed this, saying, “I give them the barn and I pay for the disposal fees … I didn’t set a timetable. They’ve only been here three days and they’ve got most of it down,” he told The Enterprise on Thursday.

At the same time, Caruso has been taking down trees. “I’ll grade it so we can plant it and make it look nice ...,” said Caruso. “It’s a lot of work and it was a long time coming,” he said, concluding that, in the end, the property will look nice.

Disposing of such a structure, Nellis said, can be “a big financial burden.” He noted that Nellis Barns & Barn Dismantling, the business that he and his brother own and run, is fully insured for such work and always eager to “rehome” historic barns.

“It’s not all about getting rich,” said Corey Nellis. “It’s giving back to the community.”

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