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Thumb Octagon Barn Being Transformed Into Agricultural Museum by 'Friends'

Historic Eight-Sided Structure in Huron County Hopes to Increase Tourism

August 3, 2003       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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Thumb Octagon Barn is an icon of our agricultural past
Volunteer caretakers Betty Armstead, left, of Cass City, and Rita Maxfield, of Attica, provide security at the unusual barn near Gagetown.

Looming above the vastness of the cornfields of Huron County is one of the most unusual structures in the state: the Thumb Octagon Barn.

In the cool interior of the huge barn sit Betty Armstead and Rita Maxfield. "We're security," they proclaim in unison. "Kids used to drive in and shut the doors and play loud music and leave cigarette butts."

The pair have been volunteering since 1999 to secure the amazing place, with help from Rita's husband, Roy, who scoots about on a tractor doing the chores needed to keep a farm in order.

Roy climbs down off the tractor and wipes off the sweat created just from being in the sun in an 80 degree plus day, and smiles. "We're doing our part," he says. Nearby are some camping trailers where thetrio stays during the "barn season."

A group of visitors occupying the picnic tables packs up, leaving the volunteer caretakers and the reporter alone on the grounds. "We only get 7-10 visitors, sometimes up to 20, a day," explains Rita.

The Maxfields and Mrs. Armstead are among 350 Friends of the Thumb Octagon Barn who have teamed up to raise money by having events like Fall Family Days, scheduled Sept. 6-7, 2003, at the barn near Gagetown, in Huron County.

The fabulous barn is an under-visited attraction, we decide, hoping to create more awareness about the site.

Visiting the Thumb Octagon Barn is a step back in time. There you can see a reaper from the 1800s, an operating stone grist mill and grain binder, threshing machines and pull-type combines, antique tractors and a shingle and saw mill.

When the "Friends" are conducting special events there may be spinning, weaving and quilt displays, farm animals and sheep shearing, horse-drawn wagon rides and activities like making syrup from sorghum, hog kettle popcorn, apple cider being pressed and craft workshops.

This year Family Days will feature Michigan's small grains, with displays and demonstrations dealing with the grain industry. A flea market will be in operation with 125 vendors. Friday's events will feature a Music Jam, Saturday a Sing-A-Long and Sunday a Gospel Sing.

As the Friends describe it: "The barn is a warehouse and a factory, a place of business, and a storehouse forfarm equipment. It is one of the farmer's most important agricultural tools."

The barn was originally used for threshing grain, milking cows, and storing hay. But is was also a place for dancing, playing, and courting. It was the heart of the farm and a vital part of the community.

James and Cora Purdy had their home built in 1919 near the intersections of Huron Line and Richie roads. It was situated on 40 acres they originally purchased for $1,250. Later the property was expanded to 520 acres and was called the "Mud Lake Estate."

In 1923, the Purdys hired local carpenters, George and John Munro to build their Octagon Barn in 1923, which was modeled after a barn John had admired while traveling. The Purdys spared few expensesin building a structure that has eight 42.5' sides and 16,000 sq/ft of useable space on the main floor and loft area. The barn stands approximately 70' high on a 4' poured concrete foundation, which was completed in 1924.

From the eaves, the roof slopes to form a peak. Halfway up the roof encircling the structure are evenly spaced dormer windows. These windows patch into an octagonal shaped "turret-like" structure with clerestory windows between each dormer. There were originally 300 individual window panes in the Barn which were engineered so that there would not be direct sunlight focused on the hay, thereby lessening the risk of fire.

The first floor has 8600 sq/ft and the maximum distance between the interior walls is 108'. This level has a 44' octagonal dirt floor arena in which there were originally two glazed brick silos that have been removed. Between the arena and side walls are stables, tack rooms and grain bins. Above this area is an overhead loft 29' wide that surrounds the arena area except on the east and west sides. At these points there are 14' x 14' doors that allowed haywagon access to the arena.

The second level has 6200 sq/ft of floor area. Below the ceiling is the remains of a tramway used to load the loft.Also there are air shafts that were part of a sophisticated ventillation system that circulated fresh air throughout the building. The columns of light from the dormers and high cupola lend a cathedral-like aura to the interior.

Mr. Purdy, President of Gagetown State Savings was a successful Michigan Thumb banker who could afford this large structure for his showplace farm. James Purdy joined his father's Gagetown bank in 1890 and under his leadership this was one of only two banks in Michigan to remain fully solvent during the Great Depression. In order to reestablish public confidence in the banking system Purdy believed that the Federal Government should insure deposits and he proposed this idea to Senator Arthur Vandenburg. Senator Vandenburg introduced the concept in the Senate and later to FDR. Hence, James Purdy is recognized as the originator of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The Purdys moved back to Gagetown and sold their elegant home and the farm in 1943. James died on Christmas Eve, 1950 at age 80 and Cora in 1955, age 86. Cora Purdy's diary of 1895-1954 has been valuable in documenting events at the Octagon Barn.

The Barn is located north of M-81 in Tuscola county and one mile east of the village of Gagetown on the Bay City-Forestville road. Turn left onto Richie road for one mile to the intersection of Richie and Huron Line roads.

In 1993, the Friends of the Octagon Barn, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization, was formed. This is a volunteer, community group committed to the restoration and preservation of the Barn and the adjacent acres. The group conducts many activities throughout the summer months which are fun for the entire family and that help support the restoration and preservation efforts. General membership meetings are held at the Gagetown Village Hall on the second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has acquired the barn and property, including the Purdy's huge old farm house, which is being restored.

The intention is for the Octagon Barn to become a tourist and historical attraction for the community's education, entertainment and recreation.

Please contact Friends of the Thumb Octagon Barn, P.O. Box 145, Gagetown, MI 48735, or call (517) 665-0081, or visit their web site at

Below:(Left) Sign proclaims Thumb Octagon Barn Agricultural Museum, a project under development by the Friends of the Thumb Octagon Barn and the Michigan Department ofNatural Resources, which owns the property. (Right)Abandoned powerhouse at Thumb Octagon Barn.

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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