By Keith Uhlig
Wausau Daily Herald
BERLIN (AP) — The decision to tear down the barn wasn’t an easy one for Ann and Jerry Ohde.
At one time, it was gleaming white, and an important center of the life that Ann had built with her first husband, Nick Zoborowski. They cared for and milked herds of dairy cows in that barn. Their five children worked and played in that building alongside them.
“The kids had lots of memories of the barn,” said Ann, who is 71 and retired from farming.
The couple bought the property from Nick’s parents, who had farmed there since the late 1940s. Ann and Nick kept up the dairy operation and grew ginseng there for more than three decades. Ann doesn’t know how old the barn was, but it has been estimated that it was built in the late 1800s or early 1900s.
By 2010, after the dairy herd was gone and Nick had died from complications of cancer, the barn was crumbling. Ann had married Jerry in the meantime, and the two considered fixing up the old building. But that would have cost thousands of dollars. So instead, they contacted Richard Jefferies, owner of Oak Haven Reclaimed Lumber of Mapleton, Minn., who would dismantle and salvage the lumber.
Ann liked the fact that the lumber would be used, but letting the barn go pained her. She could see all the effort that went into the building’s construction. Details such as the markings on the hand-hewn beams were evidence of all the painstaking, backbreaking work.
“It hurt because at one time it was a beautiful building,” Ann said. “But Mother Nature takes its toll, I guess.”
Versions of Ann and Jerry’s story — all with their own individual circumstances and details — have been playing out time and time again in north central Wisconsin. The loss of those wooden dairy barns is the byproduct of both time and the evolution of farming, and it’s changing the way our landscape looks.
No one knows for sure how many wood-framed and stone-foundation barns there were in Marathon County at the peak of the family farm era, or how quickly they are disappearing. But according to an agriculture census survey, in 2007 the county was home to 1,267 standing timber-framed barns built before 1960.
Although Marathon County ranks No. 1 in the state in the sales of milk and other dairy products, that production is being accomplished by fewer farms. Between 2007 and 2012, the county lost about 100 farms. The turbulent economics of the dairy industry, with its wildly fluctuating milk prices, makes farming a tough business.
A shift from smaller farms to larger operations, changes in the way cows are milked and the evolving way feed and hay are stored all mean the classic wooden barn is going the way of the manual typewriter. People love them, but many pragmatic farmers find the old buildings just aren’t worth the cost.
Enter Jefferies. The 61-year-old lumber reclaimer basically fell into the business about 20 years ago, he said. His barn, south of Mankato, Minn., blew down in a windstorm, and he was salvaging the lumber to make a greenhouse. Jefferies, a graduate of Minnesota State University in Mankato with a degree in political science, had a college friend visit. That friend lived in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and knew two architects who were designing high-end homes with a rustic feel.
Soon Jefferies sold the old barn lumber, and he began Oak Haven Reclaimed Lumber. He began supplying rough, distressed wood for entryways of Famous Dave’s barbecue restaurants, and those sales helped launch Oak Haven. He has found that both supply and demand for barn wood has remained steady through the years.
Through his business connections, he ended up in Marathon County about 10 years ago. He has been working steadily in north central Wisconsin since. He estimates that his crews have dismantled four or five dozen timber-framed barns in the past decade, and he has bought and sold lumber from several hundred barns in the region.
“The Marathon County area has a unique set of buildings in terms of size and design,” Jefferies said.
Most are about 100 years old, he said, built by German, Czech and Polish immigrants who relied on hand tools and manpower to build the barns. The lumber that has high value, because of its size and look.
Jefferies said he loves barns and is a member of a Minnesota barn preservation organization.
“You can imagine, I’m not the most popular guy there,” Jefferies said.
But Jefferies said recycling and reusing the materials — the lumber he salvages gets sold for all kinds of homes, businesses and more across the U.S., Europe and Asia — is better than letting it rot or having it burned.
Without a doubt, the timber-framed barn is becoming an endangered species, said Chuck Law, co-founder and coordinator of the Wisconsin Barn Preservation Program based in Madison.
And although Law doesn’t want to see old barns disappear, he would rather see the wood put to use.
“We are seeing a number of companies, new and old, refocus themselves in the reclamation business. I do understand that old-world lumber can be milled in such a way that it can be recycled into furniture or building materials,” Law said. “Our goal would be that it would be recycled into another old barn.”
The Wisconsin Barn Preservation Program helps owners of historic or distinctive barns get tax credits or other financial help in preserving the buildings. It also helps connect barn owners with contractors who specialize in rehabilitation, and offers new ideas on how old barns can be used.
“Maybe they can be converted to a bed and breakfast, or a restaurant,” Law said.
As the number of barns decreases, “the interest in these older structures is only going to increase,” he said. “To me, that creates a market, if you will, of people who are interested in preserving those barns.”
Ann Ohde’s memories of her barn are preserved in a photo album. She took pictures each day as Jefferies worked to take apart the barn. He sent her photos of the eye-popping house in which the beams were used.
When she looks out at her backyard now, “there’s something missing,” Ann said. “But knowing that a lot of the pieces are being used for someone’s enjoyment, and we have memories, too, that we kept for our enjoyment, it gets a little easier.”