Bert Breen builds a barn and a house up on a hill. (At least the title's out of the way early). Mr. Breen and his wife keep to themselves and drive the local bank president crazy by not telling anyone where they keep their money. Everyone knows they have money, because they use it to buy property, but no one knows where they've stashed it. And secrets like that drive these people batty.
The Breens occasionally get visits from the Hannaberrys, a family made up of a father (Chick) and five daughters. The father moves the family around from broken-down home to broken-down home, and they scrape together an existence by foraging and peddling. Not too glamorous.
The oldest Hannaberry daughter, Polly Ann, marries a guy named Nob Dolan. He has a small farm, but he soon proves to be as useless as her father. He leaves her after five years of marriage with three small children, a boy named Tom and twin girls. Now you know: watch out for guys named Nob.
When Tom is only eight, he observes how hard Polly Ann works to provide what little they have. He decides he wants to improve their lives and have a good farm like their neighbors the Masseys. Pretty big idea for a small kid, huh? Tom talks to Birdy, the old man who does the mowing for Polly Ann, about the idea, and when Tom is thirteen, Birdy takes him up to see the Breen barn, which Birdy helped to build. Title alert, again.
Tom loves the barn, and that's where a building becomes a dream. He gets the idea of one day moving it to his property. By this time, Bert Breen has died; however, his wife is still alive. She catches Tom creepin' on her barn and points her shotgun at him, but when she sees he's with Birdy she invites them in for tea and cookies. That's definitely the better end of the shotgun.
Mrs. Breen has an old habit of reading cards (a method for telling fortunes), which she does for Tom. She tells him what she sees in his future: he will quit school, get some money, and then get a lot of money.
Just like the cards said, Tom quits school. He gets a job as a mill hand at Ackerman and Hook. He learns quickly and begins to have new experiences in town such as going to the pharmacy and Christmas shopping for nice gifts for his mother, sisters, and Birdy. He makes a good impression on the other men who work at the mill, especially Mr. Hook. Good going, Tommy boy.
Meanwhile, Tom continues to keep his ears open for any news about the Breen barn, and he even goes to visit the Widow Breen one Sunday in February. She is much frailer than she was the first time Tom met her. Tom restocks her firewood and asks if she needs anything else, like food, visitors, or a ride to town. Mrs. Breen scoffs at the offers, saying that she wants to be left in her house with her memories.
She gets her wish: at least, for a little while. Mrs. Breen dies. Tom was the last person to see her alive, so he has to give statements to the sheriff and coroner, and he has to drive up there with them and the undertaker. It freaks him out a little, but it doesn't change his mind about wanting the barn.
Birdy explains that when there are no relatives to claim property after a death, the county will usually put the property up for sale for the price of the taxes owed on it. Tom does some calculating, and he actually thinks he could afford the property, especially if the county waits a year or two before putting it up for sale. Tom works hard fixing up his family's shabby home so that it will look nice next to the new barn, studies from a carpentry book Mr. Hook gives him for Christmas, and makes construction plans with Birdy.
But before enough time passes for the property to go up for county sale, Mr. Armond snatches it up. It borders on his property, after all. Tom consults a lawyer named Billy-Bob Baxter, who says Tom can make an offer to Mr. Armond to purchase just the barn and move it off the property.
In a stroke of luck, Mr. Armond accepts Tom's offer, and even knocks $25 of Tom's price on the condition that Tom destroy the Breen house in addition to moving the barn. BTW $25 in Tom's time would be around $700 today. Not too shabby. It's a done deal, and Tom is now the barn's owner. Woot woot!
Tom continues to work at the mill, only to turn around and work on taking down the barn in the evenings and on Sundays. That's one busy schedule. Birdy offers Tom invaluable guidance in the labor, as well as moral support. Occasionally Tom gets grief from the Flanchers, folks who keep poking around for Bert's hidden money in the old house, but Tom doesn't let that faze him too much.
While he and Birdy are taking the barn down, Tom begins to notice a few unusual things. An oddly shaped hook. A weird box of sand. What to make of it? One day, Polly Ann tells a story about once peeking into the Breen barn to see what Bert was doing in there at night. And with that clue, Tom puts the mystery together: Bert's money is hidden beneath a section of the barn's floor. Did you see that coming?
Tom and Birdy get the barn down and the new foundation built, and everyone knows what that means: it's time for a barn raising at the Dolan place. Hang on to your hats, y'all!
Seriously, the barn raising is excitement for the whole community. Neighbors and the guys from the mill come to help, bringing acquaintances for extra assistance. Polly Ann gets help from some of the other ladies to turn out cakes, pies, and hundreds of sandwiches. Even Mr. Ackerman, head honcho at the mill, comes to watch. The barn raising goes off perfectly under Birdy's expert leadership.
The one hiccup is that Yantis Flancher (you know he's no good with a name like that) turns up, asking a few of the men about Tom's plans for his barn floor. Tom decides he better go to the Breen place that night to look for the money. Good thinking, Tom. He takes Polly Ann with him because he wants to take back roads and trails in order to be as sneaky as possible, and Polly Ann knows those kinds of routes well from her days of foraging as a young girl.
Lo and behold, they find two chests under the floor, which they get loaded safely into their wagon. But the suspense isn't over: Tom sees the Flanchers approaching as he's replacing the floorboards. Run! Polly Ann and Tom take the chests to Billy-Bob's in case the Flanchers turn up at their house looking for them. At Billy-Bob's, they find over $9,000 cash money in the chests—that's a cool $250,000+ today. Jackpot!
What do you do when you're rained on with money? Duh: you set up a savings account at the bank. That's what Tom does, at least, making accounts for himself and Birdy (with help from Billy-Bob). Tom spends some of the money on the supplies he needs to finish the barn, but his plans don't end there. He tells Mr. Hook that he plans to buy land so that he can get more cows and turn the Dolan place into a paying farm, and Tom's buds help him get a new team of horses and a new wagon. He's going up in the world, and fast.
Meanwhile, Tom and Birdy have gone up to the Breen place one last time. To stand and admire it against the sunset? Nope. To burn the house down. That's what Tom promised he'd do when he bought the barn, after all.
Tom and Polly Ann drive up to the Armond place looking spiffy in their best clothes with the new team and wagon. Tom pays the rest of what he owes for the barn, and Polly Ann gets the satisfaction of visiting the Armond house with her successful son. Yep, that's a huge change from when she had to go up to the house as a girl, peddling berries for her father. When they get home, Tom takes in the sight of his barn on his property.
American dream coming true: done and done.