Farm Horizons, November 2008

Old barns find new life and purpose

Ivan Raconteur
Staff Writer

They were once a focal point of rural life, but as pressure from development increases, and the number of family farms declines, barns are rapidly disappearing from the landscape.

“History is being lost,” commented tour organizer Sarah Bowman of Friends of Minnesota Barns. She added that when early settlers came to a new homestead, the barn was often built before the house, which indicates how important barns were to the rural lifestyle.

According to Bowman, one of the biggest challenges owners face when it comes to restoring historic barns is finding a new purpose to justify the time and expense these projects take.

The Carver County Historical Society and the Friends of Minnesota Barns sponsored a barn tour Sept. 27 during which participants spent a day “barnstorming,” taking time to see a variety of traditional barns and the ways they are being used today.

The group made several stops, including a lunch break at Meadowbrook Farm, owned by Rick and Laurie Drill-Mellum of rural Waconia.

Rick, who grew up in Minneapolis, said they purchased the property 11 years ago, and they were on the verge of tearing the barn down because it was in such poor condition. Then, six years ago, he decided to restore it.

The thing that changed his mind was a vision of a party barn – a community gathering place where people could get together for barn dances, anniversary and birthday parties, and receptions.

Rick, a former high school teacher who currently teaches part-time at Concordia University in St. Paul, spent the next two summers and thousands of dollars restoring the structure.

The barn was built in the 1870s using wood that was indigenous to the property.

“The carpenter would come out and say, ‘Cut down this tree, cut down that tree,’ and the farmer would cut them down when he had time, so it probably took five years to get it ready. Then, they would have a barn raising,” Rick explained.

He credits the barn’s survival to the fact that it was mostly constructed of tamarack wood, which is naturally resistant to decay.

The barn was part of a working dairy farm until the late 1960s. Before Rick could begin restoration, he had to remove the loose hay that had been stored inside. With the help of a neighbor, he removed and baled the hay – a total of 900 bales.

Then, he removed a lean-to and row of stanchions that had been added in the 1920s. He took off the tin, designed to look like brick, that was also installed in the 1920s, and replaced it on the side of the original barn structure. He was short 20 or 30 pieces of tin, but was able to get similar tin from a neighbor who had just taken down an old building.

The floor for the upstairs, which was destined to become the dance floor, was in rough shape, but Rick was able to replace it with old-growth Douglas fir floorboards from an armory that was dismantled in Arden Hills.

Rick did most of the work himself, but hired a contractor to replace the roof. He decided at that time to remove the top portion of the internal silo because of the difficulty of sealing the roof around it. He now uses the silo to store tables and chairs.

Rick said his college education did little to prepare him for the things he learned while restoring the barn, but he and Laurie have made their vision a reality, and host up to five big events (attended by more than 100 people) each year. They do not rent out the barn for liability reasons.

“It has really been fun,” the former city boy said. “It has been a labor of love.”

Rick and Laurie now see their role as caretakers, preserving the traditional structure for future generations.

Another local barn that has survived as a result of being adapted for a new purpose is home to Mudd Lake Furniture near Watertown.

After retiring from a career as a professional football player, owner Bob Kratch purchased the property and turned the barn into a showroom.

Built in 1929, the structure was a working dairy barn until 1968.

Today, it is home to an eclectic mix of furniture, lighting, art, and antiques, and fulfills a new commercial application.

Instead of hay, the upstairs is filled with cozy leather couches, candles, and statues. The walls are adorned with signs from days gone by, advertising feed mills and farm supplies.

Downstairs, the old beams are covered with decorative plates from a tin ceiling, and the annex contains a collection of items that would seem more at home in a farm kitchen than in a barn.

Throughout the structure, there are items that date back to the days when the barn was put to a more traditional use.

Mudd Lake Furniture is open most Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information is available at the company’s web site, www.muddlake.com, or by calling (952) 955-2217.

More than 30 people participated in the Sept. 27 tour. They came from different areas and had different backgrounds, but they shared an appreciation of the craftsmanship and rural heritage of these buildings.

They began at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, and then boarded a bus and traveled across Carver County looking at barns of all descriptions.

“There is so much to see out here. You couldn’t see them all in one day,” Bowman commented.

She added that the group organizes a barn tour each year, and tries to focus on a different area each time.

Bowman, who lives in a converted dairy barn of her own, shared her irrepressible enthusiasm for barns, and confessed to a “cupola fetish,” noting that the style of cupola can help to identify and date a barn.

“There are so many amazing stories. There is so much more than meets the eye when you look at a barn,” Bowman said.

She recalled instances where she has read decades-old information about weather, cattle sales, and harvests scrawled in pencil on interior barn walls.

Bowman said she is fascinated the way barns help us to learn about those who came before us, and she is concerned about the rate at which the structures are disappearing.

“They can’t all be saved. We try to save the most significant ones,” Bowman commented.

For those that can’t be saved, Bowman said she would much rather see the someone reclaim and re-use the timbers rather than bulldozing the barns or burning them down.

“I hope that somehow people can be inspired by this tour,” Bowman said, adding that she hopes people will learn about barns and gain an appreciation for their role in our history.

The Friends of Minnesota Barns is a non-profit organization. Its mission is to “educate the public and raise awareness of the importance of historic barns and farmsteads in Minnesota, and to help advocate for barn restoration.”

More information is available at the group’s web site, www.friendsofminnesotabarns.org.

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