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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Minnesota man preserves history by recycling barns

SCANDIA, Minn. – Curt Richter has found a future for Minnesota’s past.

He exports old barns and log houses to other states, where they are rebuilt. His business, Rustic Innovations, is one of several that restore historic Minnesota farm buildings – and deliver them anywhere. ...

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SCANDIA, Minn. – Curt Richter has found a future for Minnesota’s past.

He exports old barns and log houses to other states, where they are rebuilt. His business, Rustic Innovations, is one of several that restore historic Minnesota farm buildings – and deliver them anywhere.

“This is basically recycling,” said Richter, surveying rows of 100-year-old timbers that he salvaged.

The wood recently was a cabin, which he took apart and drove to his home in Scandia. Later in June, he will ship it to a buyer who will reassemble it in Ontario.

The business of exporting history is expanding, he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

“I know a ton of people who would die to live in one of these buildings,” Richter said. He has sold cabins and barns to buyers in Texas and California.

Historians, however, are split about the practice.

“Anytime you lose buildings that tell part of our story, we lose part of history,” said Barbara Mitchell Howard, the deputy state historical preservation officer.

But Doug Gasek said it was acceptable.

“This is a type of preservation. It is great to see those buildings reused,” said Gasek, director of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. He prefers to keep them in the state but said moving them is sometimes the only way to save them.

Richter got into the business in 2004. He was a mechanical engineer who designed and built his home in Scandia, and he began to study the building techniques of the pioneers.

When he heard about an endangered barn in Winona, he jumped at a chance to save it. He took it apart, and the owners shipped it to California to be reassembled.

They sent Richter a photo last year. “I saw it – it was beautiful!” he said.

Richter said he would like to keep historic buildings in Minnesota, but they are simply too common to be valuable here.

“Find me local people willing to buy them, and I will be happy to sell,” he said.

Richter is swamped by calls from building owners.

“They call about a barn that’s been in the family. They can’t afford to put any more money into it,” he said.

“I turn down five of those a month. And whenever I hang up, I know that within six months that barn will be in the Dumpster or burned.”

But the buildings have great value to outsiders. In Southern states, the restored structures have a cachet because buildings like them have not survived.

“Between the termites and the hurricanes, you don’t see a lot of old wooden structures in the South,” Richter said.

To his buyers, Minnesota is like a warehouse of history.

Richter drove one buyer from Texas to see a barn in Polk County, Wis. On the way, they passed dozens of historic barns – which astounded the buyer.

“I had to pick him off the clouds,” Richter said.

Exporting history may upset some preservationists, but many of these structures are rotting away. Thousands of them were built when family farms crowded every county – but today most of them have no use.

But once a property is moved out of Minnesota, it’s effectively gone forever, said Howard, the preservation officer.

Often owners of such properties don’t appreciate what they have, because the buildings are not functional or attractive.

“Sometimes,” said Howard, “that history is hidden from our view.”

It was certainly well-hidden in Richter’s current project.

He found a small, plain farmhouse covered with siding, by itself in a bare field near tiny Iron, Minn. The owners were ready to tear it down.

Richter took it apart, and beneath the siding he found logs. He spent weeks carefully tagging every piece so it could be reassembled, then trucked the pieces back to Scandia.

Recently, he inspected the logs before shipping them away. In his front yard, the timbers lay in neat rows like sunbathers on a beach, with color-coded tags for certain walls.

“You’d never know this was a log house,” Richter said.

The timbers seemed to ooze authenticity. Each one was a hand-carved tree trunk scarred with the hatch-marks of Swedish tools.

Richter said the builders used whatever wood was nearby, usually from pine or poplar trees. They used a specialized ax with a curved blade to carve grooves into the logs, so they would fit into each other.

There were no nails. The logs were held together with wooden pegs as thick as baseball bats.

“I have some issues with rot,” Richter said, kicking at one crumbling log. Even the rotten wood had a story to tell – of a collapsed roof that let water drip into the kitchen area.

He pinched a piece of crud from one of the logs. It was moss, jammed into the cracks, used like caulking.

He admitted he is exporting pieces of history but said he also is saving it.

“It’s a very good thing to do,” Richter said.