A tree and a tradition: a Forest County couple celebrate their rebuilt barn with a giant evergreen

REDCLYFFE, Pa. -- Each November, Ron Songer takes a long walk through the vast former Christmas tree farms that surround his Forest County home. Once he makes his choice, the tree is cut, placed on a tractor and maneuvered inside by six men.

Rope hoists and a block and tackle are used to stand up the 22-foot evergreen in the sunken living room of a timbered retreat he shares with his wife, Marie. The 60- by 40-foot building is a former livestock barn that the couple disassembled, expanded and rebuilt because they love rustic homes.

"It was just a labor of love for 10 years," said Mr. Songer, who owns National Forest Products, a kitchen cabinet company that employs 18 people. "We wanted to keep the barn structure."

Reconstructed barn project is home for 22-foot Christmas tree

Marie and Ron Songer of Redcliffe, Pa., spent more than a decade building their dream home from an old barn they recycled. (Video by Doug Oster; 12/22/2012)

The home's high ceilings and open floor plan are perfect for a Rockefeller Center-sized tree, a tradition that began in 1999, the year the couple celebrated their first Christmas here. Arranging 17 strings of lights and hanging ornaments is a three-day event that involves a 14-foot stepladder, hooks and wooden extension poles. That's one reason the tree stays up through March.

"It drinks about three gallons of water a day," Mr. Songer said.

He drives two hours to Pittsburgh, about 100 miles to the southwest, to attend Steelers games, but he prefers Forest County, which lacks stoplights, daily newspaper or radio station. The couple's home, set on a hill, overlooks a sprawling level yard with large evergreens and a stone fence. Regular entertainment includes an acrobatic bear who becomes a contortionist to dine at their bird feeder. There's a regular parade of wild turkeys, deer and elk.

Inside, the house is a toasty Christmas card with extra-large felt stockings draped over a wooden staircase. Near the tree and dangling from the ceiling is a stuffed, full-size Grinch, a bag of stolen presents in hand. In previous years, he sat on a saddle resting on a cross beam.

Maintaining the tree tradition has its challenges. One year, after wrestling an especially large evergreen through the home's back door, the work crew wore a substantial bare spot into the tree's side. Undaunted, Mr. Songer built a tree stand -- the type used by deer hunters -- and anchored it to the evergreen. Upon it he perched the Grinch, armed with a hunting rifle.

Also suspended from the ceiling is a large wooden antique farm wagon from Brookville that the couple spotted at an antique shop. Colorful lights twinkle around its four wheels.

The couple could have built a new home but opted to recycle after seeing many dilapidated barns, some on the verge of collapse, on frequent business trips across Interstate 80.

"To breathe life back into a barn was a real inspiring challenge," Mrs. Songer said.

Her husband learned about the free barn from a brother-in-law. "We could have it if we took it down and tore it apart," he said.

The 4,000-square-foot home, which has three bedrooms and three bathrooms, even retains its original hardware. Built around 1900, the barn had a second life as an antique shop.

When the couple began taking it apart in 1988 with the help of family and friends, Mr. Songer's hair was dark, and he thought nothing of climbing 27 feet into the air and using a crowbar to remove the roof. "It was physically demanding," said Mr. Songer, whose hair and beard are now flecked with gray.

The logs had to be numbered, stacked and covered. From a second barn, the couple salvaged barn stone they used on the first floor. With a helper, Mr. Songer used boulders from his property to build a 15-foot-wide fieldstone fireplace that is 17 feet tall. For more than a decade, while the barn was still a shell, the Songers lived in a nearby 1,000-square-foot home on their 25-acre property.

"We were able to make changes because we were doing it ourselves," Mr. Songer said. "It took three years to put it back up and get it under roof.

The oak flooring was rough sawn and the saw marks remain. Mrs. Songer vividly recalls that chore. "I was always on the end, getting covered in sawdust and wood chips."

She devoted more than a year to staining the exterior hemlock siding, which was cut by a local Amish carpenter. With a spray gun, she applied a homemade mixture of used motor oil and kerosene to darken the wood.

"I wanted to make it look like a barn," she said.

The first floor holds two guest bedrooms, two bathrooms, an office, mud room, living room and dining room. In a large kitchen with hunter green cabinets and a stainless-steel backsplash, pots and pans hang from a former tractor wheel suspended above a large island. A high shelf on the room's perimeter affords display space for Mrs. Songer's collection of cookie tins.

A long line of custom-built cabinets runs from the kitchen past the dining room. Topping it is a hemlock log polished to a golden sheen with tung oil. Tree bark is still visible on the top edges of the log.

"It took 10 people to get it into the house," Mrs. Songer said.

The third-floor master bedroom has red shutters that open onto a small balcony, affording a bird's-eye view of the Christmas tree.

Four dormers and a cupola, topped by a copper rooster weather vane, were afterthoughts. One of the dormers is a cozy, cushioned reading nook with a view of the front lawn; another is a personal chapel with a kneeler for prayer and spiritual reading. The Songers open the cupola during the summer to let in cool night air.

"Building the four dormers was like constructing four small houses. They each had three walls and a separate roof. Raising that cupola was quite a job," Mrs. Songer said, adding that she helped pull it through a hole in the roof.

By 1998, 80 percent of the work was finished. Then, while trying to install a junction box for electrical lighting, Mr. Songer overextended himself and fell more than 20 feet from a ladder. He was LifeFlighted to UPMC Presbyerian, where he spent more than a week. The fall put him out of commission for a year. The steel fixator that was screwed into his right arm and wrist to keep his bones from moving now hangs on the wall in the home's foyer.

"I have a greater respect for ladders," he said.

A contractor installed the roof shingles and Mr. Songer's brother, Roger, put in the plumbing. Radiant heat keeps the barnstone floors toasty, and logs burning in the fireplace add warmth plus atmosphere. There's also a coal- and wood-burning potbellied stove in the sunken living room that came from a train station in Medford, Mass.

"It was used during the construction phase but now it's an ornament," Mr. Songer said.

The house was finished and the couple moved in in time for Christmas 1999.

"We were all there that year. My mother, four brothers and one sister and all four of our children and their family's children. It was like a miracle. There were 33 of us that first Christmas," Mr. Songer recalled.

Mr. Songer played the organ, and the family sang Christmas carols. With his three brothers, he played pool in a third-floor game room while grandchildren raced trucks along the hardwood floors.

Rebuilding the barn, Mrs. Songer said, "took many many hands, and a lot of heart."


Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published December 22, 2012 5:00 AM


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