What to Keep, Toss, or Sell: How to Clean Out An Old Barn

McCollum Orchards has a beautiful barn. Built in the late 1800s, it has wide virgin timber floorboards, rough ax-cut support beams held together with wooden pegs and square handmade nails. It has withstood many Western New York winters and begs to be used again for its intended purpose.

The problem is that we cannot use it for farm jobs because it is filled with generations of old stuff – broken furniture, lead windows, rusted kitchen utensils, old books, photos, trunks of molded clothing.  It has gathered about 80 years’ of dust and squirrel nests. We’re pretty sure it has become New York’s largest squirrel condominium. To be able to use the space, we have to clean and organize it and perhaps evict some angry squirrels.

How do you clean out an old barn? How do you decide what to keep, toss, or sell?

Asking those questions while standing in front of a barn full of stuff conjures up some surprisingly strong emotions – even when it is not your stuff! To do this right and not get overwhelmed, we had to deal with the knee-jerk sentiment to keep it all or the frustrated urge to toss it all. We also had to play nice with those chattering squirrels.

First, we developed an action plan to keep ourselves realistic. We designated areas of the barn for certain types of things.

Then, we created a decision matrix for each item:

  • Is it obviously trash? Move it to the garbage can.
  • Can it be sold for scrap? Move it to the scrap pile for drop-off.
  • Can it be reused for another farm purpose? Move it to the tractor shed.
  • Can it be sold at an auction or yard sale? Clean off and move to a dry side of the barn.
  • Does it have family historical significance? Take a photo and set aside for family.
  • Is it worth the cost and effort to repair? If no, then move to yard sale pile.

Finally, we donned industrial cleaning gear – coveralls, gloves, shoe covers, respirators, and goggles – and got to work. We moved like with like – farm tools with farms tools, books with books, and broken pieces altogether. Some decisions were no-brainers, like to toss a rusted metal bedspring, but to keep family wedding photos from the early 1900s. While we worked, little squirrel eyes followed us from room to room.

The process was helpful both in putting the farm’s long history in perspective and in preparing for its future. We uncovered relics that can be salvaged. At the same time, we created space to live in the present. Now, if we can just disable those walnut slingshots the squirrels set up…