By KYLE MUNSON
The Des Moines Register
LAKE SUNDOWN, Iowa (AP) — Lorin Hayden wandered beneath the massive wooden skeleton that had risen on the lakeshore and craned his neck to glance at the peak nearly 30 feet above.
The lanky builder caressed the sturdy bones — 10-inch-thick beams that still bear the ax marks (beauty marks in Hayden’s eyes) from when this 30-by-40-foot barn was hand-hewn in the 1870s more than 400 miles north near Manitowoc, Wis., The Des Moines Register reported.
What had been a Wisconsin barn will become a southern Iowa vacation home for Craig and Becky Christensen of Des Moines and their 11-year-old son, Gehrig.
The family hopes by May to bask in the glorious sunsets that blaze across the water of this private, 400-acre lake. Perhaps the couple will retire here one day.
“We didn’t realize this was going to be so impressive,” Becky, a pharmacist, said earlier this month in the bitter cold.
Craig, a bank examiner, is a city boy who was raised in Urbandale, Iowa — although he does have barn blood in his veins from grandparents who farmed near Royal.
Becky grew up in Bellevue along the Mississippi River in far northeast Iowa. Her dad worked at John Deere but also tended a 160-acre hobby farm. Becky helped bale hay in the barn.
If you’ve spent about 5 minutes in Iowa, you already know that barns, more than any other type of structure on the prairie, are the acknowledged temples of our agricultural heritage. They’re also an increasingly endangered species, with their weathered lumber in high demand far beyond the farming Heartland.
“A man’s barn bespoke his worth as a man,” reads the introduction to the 1972 book “The Barn: A Vanishing Landmark in North America.” “It expressed his earthly aspirations and symbolized the substance of his legacy to his children.”
Craig said of the couple’s own barn-to-home brainstorm, “Driving back and forth from Bellevue we just noticed a lot of barns that are falling down and in disrepair.”
So the Christensens turned to Dan Schmitt of rural Guttenberg, Iowa, whose iowabarnsavers.com business specializes in preserving barns even if it means relocating and reinventing them.
“I didn’t want to be called the ‘demolition guy,’ ” Schmitt said. “I fell in love with barns.”
Schmitt dismantles at least a few barns per year, meticulously labeling each piece so that the structure can be reassembled as if it were a giant Lincoln Logs play set.
He also works with Hayden, whose Backcountry Builders based in Oregon reassembles barns nationwide. Earlier this month, the barn guys employed a crane to help raise the Christensens’ frame between two conventional homes on a concrete foundation that includes a tuck-under garage and walk-out basement.
“We’re always sitting up here going, ‘How did the Amish do it?’ ” Hayden chuckled.
Once the boards and beams are locked into place, Hayden said, it’s almost as if the barn sighs and relaxes back into its intended shape.
Every bent was within a quarter inch of where it should have been.
The exterior of the Christensens’ barn will be masked in fiber cement siding and the roof topped with standard shingles in keeping with the covenant of the private lake association.
But the beams will be showcased inside in a great room overlooking the lake.
It’s a sin to apply stain to such beautiful wood, Schmitt added.
“You could still smell the barn when we power-washed the frame,” Craig said.
The aroma of hay, grain, accumulated dust, I wondered?
No, no, Craig laughed: the unmistakable smell of pig manure.
Minus the manure, barn homes have become almost common in some places. Four were simultaneously on the market this fall in Ridgefield, Conn.
“Back in the heyday of spending more” before the Great Recession, Hayden said, barns were being converted into “anything you could imagine.”
Even now, Schmitt has sold a barn to become a winery in California and another for a church in North Carolina (complete with the vintage water trough as a baptismal font).
Two Rivers Trading Co., New Sharon, Iowa, deals far and wide in salvaged barn lumber that can cost up to $5 per square foot.
“It’ll be a long time before they’re all gone,” John Livezey of Two Rivers said of Iowa’s barns. “There’s lots of them around yet.”
The Iowa Barn Foundation launched in 1997, however, caters to the purists. The nonprofit to date has helped to save 139 barns with matching grants that range from $500 to $25,000 for owners who must sign a perpetual easement to preserve the barn.
The foundation’s president, Jacqueline Schmeal, said that she was sad when I described the Lake Sundown barn.
“I think the barns should stay where they are and certainly stay in Iowa,” she said. “Because they are sculpture. They are folk art.”
Barn-saver Schmitt keeps his own barn on his acreage near Guttenberg.
“I go out there at night and just turn on some music, and that’s my solitude,” he said.
The Christensens next year will begin to make their own memories while “living in a piece of art,” as Hayden put it.
“You can create a family history in a place like this,” said the barn-lover from Oregon.
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com