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Recreating History: Vernonia Family Brings an Old Farm Back to Life

On the east side of Highway 47, just south of Vernonia sits a wooden barn with an old windmill standing next to it. When the wind blows, the windmill spins, just like it did in the old days. A handful of sheep and goats wander and graze in the small pasture behind the barn. In the summer the gardens are overflowing with produce.   It looks like a Norman Rockwell painting from the 1940’s.

It looks like the 1940’s but in reality it’s a modern day, operating, small scale, family farm.

The property is owned by Jeff and Susan Ely. The old barn was rebuilt by Jeff after collapsing in 2007 . The old Star windmill was installed by the Ely’s, with the help of some friends.

The Elys have been purposely rebuilding this small-scale family farm complete with livestock, large producing gardens and most recently the installation of the windmill. And of course, there is that magnificent barn that they revived.

Reviving the old farm is, in part, educational for the Ely’s three children; Bradley, Meagan and Lauren all participate in 4-H and raise the livestock living on the property. The reconstruction of the barn was necessary because the family needed a place to keep the livestock and store hay and machinery. It also provided an opportunity to preserve some history.

Plus, it all looks really great!

We had the pleasure of visiting with the Elys, who also invited the previous property owners, Del and Kathy Allen, as well as Jack Finzel, who helped with the windmill installation. It was a beautiful fall evening and the group of us sat on the back patio the Elys constructed, soaking up the atmosphere. We talked about the history of the property and the changes the Elys have made as the sheep grazed nearby and goats nibbled on the trees. It was just about perfect.

The Elys moved their family to the Vernonia area from Hillsboro in 2006, purchasing the five acres from the Allens. According to the Allens, who bought the property in 1979, the land is part of one of the original handful of homesteads in the region.

It is a historically significant piece of land and many families have lived or worked on parts of it over the years. Both the Allens and Susan Ely tell similar stories of strangers stopping by to talk about past friends or relations who used to live there. “People stop here a lot!” says Ely. “It is not unusual. People have a lot of memories, anecdotes and stories about things that happened here, way back when.”

Like most homesteads in the area, the property was originally logged and then farmed.   The property also had an orchard; the remnants remained when the Allens owned the place.

In addition to the home improvements, the Elys have done some other major work on the property since they acquired it. They moved in around Thanksgiving of 2006; in February of 2007 the old barn collapsed.   For the Ely’s, the barn (and the barn owl that lived inside) was a major selling point when they decided to buy.   “When we came to look at the place it was a perfect fall weekend and there were apples on the tree, the leaves were all turning, and it just looked so perfect with the old barn that even had a barn owl looking down on us.” The Elys were hooked and moved in soon afterwards. Then the barn collapsed.

Jeff Ely and his brother had some experience building barns when they were younger, and so Jeff rebuilt this barn himself. Ely used new wood for the interior structure but used the original barn boards for the outside and reused the old tin roof as well.   Ely says he reoriented the barn on the property and also built it wider and not as tall as the original. They have also used some of the hand-hewn wood that was left over in projects around the property, including handrails in the barn and patio furniture.

The Star windmill that the Elys installed was built by Flint & Walling and is a ten foot model number 1937, built somewhere between 1937 and 1953. Jack Finzel, who has an interest in antique steam engines and other old machinery, found the windmill (which did not include a tower for it) and purchased it at a swap meet in Brooks, OR several years ago. He recently found out that the Elys were looking for one and sold it to them. He then helped them install it. Jeff Ely built the tower and raised it with the help of Dennis Weller of Weller and Sons Logging. The windmill is fully functional and could operate a pump on a well; the Elys just like it because it looks good and don’t have any plans to use it for anything else.

Finzel equates it to a type of yard art. “There’s a certain ‘cool factor,’” he says.   ”Every time I drive by here and I see it spinning it puts a smile on my face.”

The rudder has original printing on both sides and includes the manufacturer, Flint & Walling as well as the retailer, Mitchell, Lewis and Staver, which, according to Finzel, was a west coast hardware distributor. It even says Portland on it.   All of the original lettering was repainted by hand with enamel paint to give it a few more years of visibility.

According to research Finzel has been able to uncover, the windmill has a unique shaped blade. “Apparently this company had a wind tunnel available and did some experimenting with blade styles,” said Finzel. “And they claimed that this particular blade style is 30% more efficient than the squared off edged ones that had previously been built.”

The Ely family has raised lambs and sold plants in addition to raising meat rabbits and chickens for eggs. They also have a horse and two Nubian goats, which are considered pets and entertainment. They are also growing strawberries, tomatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers, potatoes, onions, peppers, basil, spinach, lettuce and huge blackberries!

The Elys have re-created their own version of a homestead in Vernonia and are enjoying and sharing the fruits of their labors. For them it’s a little slice of history and of heaven.