Wilder Homestead restoration in Buckland moves to next phase with help from glass artist

Greg Stevens, manager of Hamshaw Lumber in Greenfield, brought a donated window sash and transoms to the Wilder Homestead barn museum in Buckland on Feb. 12.

Greg Stevens, manager of Hamshaw Lumber in Greenfield, brought a donated window sash and transoms to the Wilder Homestead barn museum in Buckland on Feb. 12. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/MIKE MCCUSKER

Shelburne glass artist Josh Simpson is donating original-style bullseye glass for the transoms at the Wilder Homestead in Buckland.

Shelburne glass artist Josh Simpson is donating original-style bullseye glass for the transoms at the Wilder Homestead in Buckland. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/MIKE MCCUSKER

Sheriff Chris Donelan, corporals Jason Kelton and Gregory King, and clients were on hand at the Wilder Homestead in Buckland on Feb. 12.

Sheriff Chris Donelan, corporals Jason Kelton and Gregory King, and clients were on hand at the Wilder Homestead in Buckland on Feb. 12. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/MIKE MCCUSKER

The first of four cuts to form a rectangular pane of glass for the transom windows at the Buckland Historical Society’s Wilder Homestead.

The first of four cuts to form a rectangular pane of glass for the transom windows at the Buckland Historical Society’s Wilder Homestead. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/SUE REED

Shelburne glass artist Josh Simpson measures glass for a window before cutting it into a rectangle while contributing to the Buckland Historical Society’s Wilder Homestead restoration project.

Shelburne glass artist Josh Simpson measures glass for a window before cutting it into a rectangle while contributing to the Buckland Historical Society’s Wilder Homestead restoration project. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/SUE REED

The last shaping of the glass before it is cooled.

The last shaping of the glass before it is cooled. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/SUE REED

Shelburne glass artist Josh Simpson spins out a clear glass disc while contributing to the Buckland Historical Society’s Wilder Homestead restoration project.

Shelburne glass artist Josh Simpson spins out a clear glass disc while contributing to the Buckland Historical Society’s Wilder Homestead restoration project. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/SUE REED

Shelburne glass artist Josh Simpson scores the glass before breaking it down the score line while contributing to the Buckland Historical Society’s Wilder Homestead restoration project.

Shelburne glass artist Josh Simpson scores the glass before breaking it down the score line while contributing to the Buckland Historical Society’s Wilder Homestead restoration project. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/SUE REED

By VIRGINIA RAY

For the Recorder

Published: 02-19-2024 5:42 PM

Modified: 02-19-2024 8:23 PM


BUCKLAND — When Shelburne glass artist Josh Simpson made his first visit to the Buckland Historical Society’s Wilder Homestead restoration project last year, the mention of hand-blown glass in the windows above the door to the barn caught his attention.

“I piped up and said, ‘I’m a glassblower and I know how those windows were made; I know how to do that,’” Simpson recalled. With Historical Society President Mike McCusker expressing interest, Simpson volunteered to make original-style bullseye glass for each of the transom windows, thinking there might be three or four of them in all.

Simpson said he didn’t think about it much again until he attended the Feb. 12 ceremony “and discovered there are 16 windows in each. So I went from three or four to 32 windows that I’ll be making.”

Simpson’s contribution to the restoration project at the circa 1798 barn on Route 112, which is included on the National Register of Historic Places, is the latest step toward completing a project that has been underway for more than a year and being discussed for about 16 years.

The project

The Buckland Historical Society has worked to plan the restoration and raise the needed $500,000. One anonymous donor contributed $75,000 and another $75,000 was allocated from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), thanks to efforts by former state Sen. Adam Hinds and current Sen. Paul Mark, who was a representative at the time.

About $50,000 to complete the work remains to be raised. Donations can be sent to P.O. Box 88, Buckland, MA 01338 or contributed online at bucklandmasshistory.org.

“We are reassessing where we stand financially,” McCusker said. “This is a long project.”

Once completed, the Historical Society plans to host dances and numerous exhibits, including those highlighting farm machinery and live weaving demonstrations.

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About a year ago, the Historical Society began removing the artifacts housed in the barn and storing them at five privately owned barns in Buckland. From there, contractors and specialists, led by architect Jack Sobon, took all 208 pieces of the barn apart and inspected each one.

Contractors dug a new foundation and poured concrete to make footings and a frost wall. A new barn floor was built with a threshing bay. The renovation also includes a designated weaving room.

Cruckfather LLC, a local timber framing company, harvested lumber from the hill behind the property for the project. About 65% of the old wood needed to be replaced or repaired due to rot. In November 2023, workers started putting the beams back in place.

On Monday, Feb. 12, a substantial amount of new metal roofing was installed and Hamshaw Lumber of Greenfield donated all new sash (the framework that holds windowpanes in place), including 10-foot-long transom windows with glass panes.

Members of the Franklin County Jail and House of Correction’s community service program removed all the old glass in the windows.

In the spring, site work will begin around the barn. That includes installing huge stones to be donated by Ashfield Stone around the museum’s entryway.

McCusker said the society is now looking for a grant to install lighting inside the barn “and a modest amount of decorative lighting to illuminate some of the amazing repair work we’ve done.”

The painstaking restoration includes elements that are, McCusker said, “like exhibits themselves; they’re very sophisticated and beautiful,” such as Simpson’s hand-blown, original-style bullseye glass for each of the transom windows above the door.

Bullseye glass: history and process

While it’s a big project, Simpson said making this style of glass is something “all glassblowers know how to do.”

“It was our bread and butter, making windowpanes, things that were practical,” Simpson said of his forebears who practiced the craft.

“In the 15th century, this is the way glass panes were made for windows. Glassblowers like me would make very large discs — 20, 30 inches in diameter — and out of it they would cut many square or rectangular panes. But always in the center was the mark from the pontil, a long, metal rod, and they would end up with this little center piece, which they couldn’t use.”

That’s because where the pontil was attached to the glass, the glass wasn’t clear — it distorted the view when one looked through it. It also resembled a bullseye.

“People would put these bullseyes above the door to let light come in,” said Simpson. “Farmers and people building houses would buy them very cheaply and put them over the door. Nowadays there are much more efficient ways to make perfectly optically clear glass, but it’s lost the charm.

“So, I’m making glass precisely the way it would have been done when that barn was constructed in 1798,” he added.

That process is time-consuming. It took Simpson all day Thursday to make eight panes, which measure an exacting 6⅞ inches by 81/8 inches to correctly fit the transom frame. He starts by melting hundreds of pounds of sand, lime and feldspar.

“All minerals from the Earth, all readily available, that you can dig up, and I mix them together and throw them in my furnace,” Simpson explained. “If you have a handful of sand, you could leave it on your table for a day or month or 100 years and it will never change. But if you put it in a furnace at 2,300 degrees, it melts and becomes glass.”

When the glass is ready, Simpson takes three or four “gathers” of it on the end of a blowpipe to build volume and then blows a bubble until it becomes a roughly 7-inch-diameter sphere. While the glass is still attached to the blowpipe, he attaches the pontil — French for “little bridge” — to the bottom of the sphere and breaks it away from the blowpipe.

He then heats the glass and, with shears, cuts the top to make it even while continuing to heat it as it “gets wider and wider, almost like a bowl.”

Next he puts the sphere into the reheating furnace again and spins the glass. In this step, the outer rim expands, becoming a flat, round disc. That is then broken off the pontil and put in a cooling oven overnight to bring it from 1,000 degrees to room temperature.

Finally, Simpson measures and cuts the glass with a glass cutter to fit the windowpane openings.

Characteristic dry wit intact, Simpson said he hopes to make all 32 panes in four days, “except for the fact that the glass gods are malevolent and, if you act overconfident, they will see that and come down and make things more difficult for you.”

“The irony is that they’re going to be 10 or 12 feet up in the air above the doors and, if I do my job correctly, no one will notice them,” said Simpson. “But I just love the fact that I’ll be part of something that will live longer than me.”