Antique barn-building tools hold a ‘lifetime of work’

Amos Knestrick of Vanceville built numerous barns, some of which are still standing, in Washington County in the late 1800s

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Laura Walker marveled about the history and craftsmanship she said she could still feel in the tools that a Vanceville man once used to build several barns in Washington County during the late 19th century.


“A lot of museums, you have these things displayed that you can’t touch,” Walker said. “To pick these tools up – you can feel the years and hands that touched them – you get a lot closer to knowing who used them.”


The man who owned them, Amos Knestrick, was a Civil War veteran who built a number of barns in North Bethlehem Township and other neighboring communities beginning in 1876. His great-grandson, Kay Stepp of Scenery Hill, now owns the tools and recalls the stories he heard as a young boy from his father about Knestrick’s life or reading about his carpentry trade in an old family ledger.


He brought the tools – wooden mallets, steel chisels and large screws still in pristine condition – to showcase inside the John White stone house during the Washington County Fair earlier this week. He spent two days discussing the importance and stories behind the tools with Walker, a member of the Washington County History and Landmarks Foundation, and others who dropped by showing “intense interest” in the relics.


“My dad would tell me about his grandpap building barns,” said Stepp, who has owned the tools for 40 years. “I know one thing about them; they’re very collectible. But they’ll stay in the family, that’s for sure, unless (his descendants) want to donate them to a place like this.”


Stepp learned of Walker’s interest in local history when he read a June story in the Observer-Reporter about her touring historic barns in Washington County with the Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of Pennsylvania. They’ve formed a partnership of shared knowledge that has helped them both to learn more about important landmarks.


Knestrick, who died at age 89 in 1922, spent more than a decade building an unknown number of barns while traveling around the area on a horse-pulled cart with his tools loaded in the rear. Together, Stepp and Walker have been able to identify four barns built by Knestrick that are still standing in North Bethlehem, along with a grist mill house in Lone Pine and the Fairbanks Schoolhouse near Scenery Hill.


“We’ll often find the original owner of the land and first owner of the barns on the date stone,” Walker said. “It’s very hard to be able to identify who the builder of that barn was.”


It’s been a monumental and satisfying undertaking spurred by Walker’s expertise and Stepp’s memories and family ledger.


“We’re turning into a pretty good team,” Walker said. “This is becoming a great partnership.”


Stepp, 79, who worked at the Brockway glass factory in Canton Township for 31 years, only dabbled in carpentry by taking on small projects. He feels closer to his great-grandfather when he holds some of those tools “with a lifetime of work” etched into the wooden mallets and battered chisels.


“There’s a story in there. I’d like to go back there to that time,” Stepp said. “That’s hard work. I’d hate to get into a fight with one of those guys. That’s workman muscle there.”


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