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Barn Rebuild: Restoring with a Purpose

Bring function back to an aging structure while preserving the building's unique history.

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Cass Swanson
The original barn was built in 1889 and has been in the author’s husband’s family for six generations.

Restoring older buildings is a situation many rural landowners face, whether they purchased a property with aging structures they want to use, or they’re weighing the options of preserving history.

My family fell into the latter category when we returned to my husband’s family farm in 1997. The land sits on the banks of the Big Sioux River in eastern South Dakota, and was homesteaded in 1870 by his great-great-great-grandparents, Carl and Carolyn Swanson. In 1889, they constructed a dairy barn north of their cabin home. A few years later, they added a larger barn onto the west side of the dairy barn, and a few years after that, they built a classic farmhouse nearby. (The livestock’s needs were met long before the Swansons moved out of the log cabin!) My husband’s immediate family moved to the farm in 1967 to care for an aging uncle. My husband still remembers his uncle’s draft horses and a variety of farmhands who made their marks on the old barn.

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Image Cass Swanson

Russ Swanson (the author’s husband’s brother) in front of the barn in the 1970s.

Busy with a young family, I never gave the barn much thought, except as a place for storage and our horse’s shelter. But I knew that time and weather were taking a toll on the building, so in 2016, I contacted a barn restoration company for an evaluation.

Charlie Mell of Rustic Barn Restoration in Cambridge, Minnesota, inspected the barn. He was adamant that it and other buildings on the property could easily be restored. He said folks so often want to tear down old structures and throw up a pole building instead, but in doing so, the building’s uniqueness and history is lost. And while we understood that, without an intended purpose for the barn, we couldn’t justify such a huge undertaking and expense, so we tabled the project.

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Image Cass Swanson

This was the barn before we started.

Spring forward a couple of years, and our youngest son became a horse trainer. Every day, he walked around the property, trying to figure out the best use of the land and where to add a building for an indoor round pen. One day, while standing with him at our horse fence, I suggested restoring the barn and converting the dairy shed into an arena. We contacted Rustic Barn Restoration, and Mell returned to reinspect the building. He determined that the barn was still worth saving, and that the dairy side would indeed work as an arena. He rebid the project, since we’d be doing major reconstruction, and his bid remained within our budget. With new purpose, we moved forward with the restoration.

Project Considerations

During the restoration, we learned some valuable insights, and compiled a list of things worth considering when undertaking a similar project.

1. Determine how you’ll use the structure. Ask yourself, “What are my plans for the completed project?” At the time we first bid our project, we didn’t have any plans for the barn. And to be honest, if we’d done the restoration then, we would’ve saved the structure as it was. If we’d done that, the barn would’ve been serviceable, but the dairy area had a long, low run in the middle, plus wings and lean-tos, and it wouldn’t have served any purpose. Determining a use for the barn gave us clear focus to restore the structure in a way that best suited our needs.

2. Count the costs. Our expenses were twofold: We had the cost of saving the historical building (plus adding stalls and a tack room), and then the rebuild of the dairy side to create the arena addition. Since the arena is for our son’s business, he took on that financial responsibility. Once we settled the financial aspect, we had a purpose and a plan for the project.

3. Be realistic about the project’s timeline, available workforce, and required equipment. We knew we’d be able to contribute our own time and resources to the project, and our contractor was willing to work with us. In fact, we had to invest time and effort into getting the barn cleaned up before we could even start the rebuild.
Although the barn had been used as a horse shelter for years, it primarily stored supplies for our farm and trucking business. Our first task was to remove all the stored rubble, trucking supplies, and buildup. We found new homes for the items we wanted to keep, and discarded the rest. We also removed weeds and trees that had grown in and around the barn. (Never let trees or bushes grow near your buildings or concrete areas. The damage they do is unbelievable.)

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Image Cass Swanson

A well-planned restoration allowed the author’s family to preserve the barn’s history and gain a functional structure that suits their needs.

Everyone was impressed with how nice the barn area began to look just by removing years of overgrowth and detritus. The cleanup trickled over to other parts of the farm, and our to-do list is still ongoing.

4. Accept hard realities. The entire east wall of the barn needed to be rebuilt, as did the arena section. Unfortunately, all the things in those areas we’d hoped we could save weren’t worth salvaging. (The most important thing you can do if you want to preserve a structure is to get a roof on it as soon as possible. Even if your remodel is years down the road, preventing moisture damage is key to having something worth saving.)
It might be difficult to watch some parts of the restoration. The day that two men used jacks to lift the entire southeast corner of the barn more than 2 feet high so they could cut out and rebuild the rotten walls, we had to stop watching and walk away. They told us, “Don’t worry, we’re insured!”

5. Salvage what you can. This applies to both the rebuild and what’s removed from the structure. We disassembled all the removed shiplap walls, pulled every nail, and power-washed every board, which have been repurposed as walls in the tack room, the shop, and our home.

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Image Cass Swanson

During the rebuild, the author salvaged boards with names and dates carved into them, as well as boards with names and dates formed with nails.

When dealing with historical sites, be on the lookout for artifacts. We found names carved into wood, dates hammered into wood with nails, and quite a few items of interest. (The original builders really loved nails, apparently. There were so many of them, my daughter was convinced they added weight for security during high winds and tornadoes!) In addition to salvaging and reusing what we had, I began to scour the internet and classified ads for additional things for the barn. The majority of the 2x10s, 2x12s, stalls, and posts are secondhand finds. Because the barn wasn’t built with prefab 10-inch stall panels in mind, we had to do some creative assembling. In the end, it all turned out perfect.

We hung every wall in the interior of the barn with plastic, and insulated them before adding heavy-duty boards for the secure horse stalls. One regret we have is not asking the contractor to wrap the outside of the barn with a wind and moisture barrier before adding the steel.

On that note, it was very hard for me to see this beautiful, hand-built wooden structure covered in tin. If I had unlimited resources and time, I would’ve gone with a wooden rebuild. However, I’m delighted with how it all turned out, and I know it will last another 100-plus years.

One Step at a Time

I can’t tell you how much joy the barn has brought my family. We’re making our best memories out there, working together and watching my son train and care for horses. I’m the self-elected “momma chore girl,” and the tasks are my sanctuary and my exercise. I love the smell of fresh pine shavings when the stalls are clean, and the sound of the horses munching their hay at feeding time. Every day, I find myself thankful that we chose to repurpose, restructure, and preserve a piece of history while creating a functional facility that will benefit our future.

It’s easy to sit on the fence, because it’s hard to decide whether to pursue a project of this caliber. If you take it one step at a time, though, the rewards can be amazing.

Cass Swanson married into a family farm, and, together with her cowboy, raised the sixth generation to call it home. Her greatest pride is seeing her kids and their cousins create value-added businesses to help preserve and promote the farm’s heritage.

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Additional Resources:

Article: Restoring Old Barns

Barns are as unique as their owners, and the solution to a run-down barn will largely depend on what you’d like to get out of it.

Book: Barn Again: From Rundown Barn to Elegant Living Space

Today, many barns across the United States have outlived their original usefulness and are being destroyed, while others are slowly collapsing. Yet, some creative architects, developers, and homeowners are making use of the flexible space offered by barns. Inside Barn Again, informative text and more than 240 beautiful color photos explore the possibilities for transforming barns to living and working areas, featuring unique sightlines and vaulting open spaces. This book will be a treasured reference for homeowners, architects, and designers alike.

This title is available at www.Grit.com/Store or by calling 866-803-7096. Mention promo code MGRPALZ5. Item #10561.

Updated on Aug 18, 2021  |  Originally Published on Aug 5, 2021

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