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Munson: Wisconsin barn reborn as Iowa lake home

Lake Sundown, Ia. -- 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.

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 -- 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 book "The Barn: A Vanishing Landmark in North America" -- published in 1972. "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, whose business specializes in preserving barns even if it means relocating and reinventing them.

"I didn't want to be called the 'demolition guy,' " Schmitt explained. "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.

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