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Mila Koumpilova, Published December 25 2009

Barn rehab draws honor

A few years ago, Carl Erickson’s family flocked to his Hawley, Minn., farm with a mission – an extreme makeover of the Ericksons’ almost 90-year-old barn.

They came from all over: Erickson’s children from Duluth, Minn., and Fargo, a brother from Wisconsin, a nephew from Alaska, and two sisters from Washington state, one of them just wrapping up a round of chemotherapy.

In recent years, they’d debated whether to keep pouring energy and money in the weathered building. They just couldn’t bring themselves to let it go.

“You just think back on what it meant to the family and the memories it brings,” says Erickson. “If the barn isn’t there, the memories will be gone.”

Erickson and his wife, Wanda, snagged the top prize in the second annual Barn of the Year contest. The contest is an initiative of Friends of Minnesota Barns, a nonprofit that encourages families like the Ericksons to save traditional barns – repositories of family history and staples of the state’s rural landscape that are becoming an endangered species.

“A barn is like an old friend,” says contest judge Richard Jefferies. “Good times, bad times, hard work, kids playing – all kinds of things happen in these buildings.”

Curt’s grandfather Nels Grefte, who’d emigrated from Sweden in the 1870s and taken on the last name Erickson, built the barn, wedging its lower level into the hillside.

Almost all of Carl’s memories of growing up on the farm unfold in the barn, where he started milking cows when he was 6. He would spend his whole life on the farm, which he bought from his father in 1968.

“The barn in those days was such an important part of our lives,” he says. “It was our livelihood, the focal point of the farm.”

Curt Richter of the Friends of Minnesota Barns says 1,300 historic barns in the state disappear every year. Families often let them go reluctantly, after hearing from neighbors and friends: “Why are you putting money into this old barn? It’s a piece of junk.”

“We tell them it’s not ridiculous to put money into these barns,” Richter says. “It’s worth saving them.”

The Ericksons faced the same dilemma in recent years. When the family farm transitioned to a grain operation in the 1970s, the barn became a storage space. The original red color was painted over white. A hailstorm in the late 1990s damaged the roof. The barn was becoming a drain on resources.

But at the 2001 funeral of Carl’s mom, the family made a resolution: They’d all return to the farm the following year for a “barn painting party.” Over a July week in 2002, the family spruced up the barn and restored it to the original red color.

“We got it back to where it was a keeper,” says Carl.

It was the thorough restoration work and the long back story that made the Ericksons’ barn stand out in the competition. It won the grand prize in the non-farm use division. Wanda’s photos landed it on the cover of the 2010 Friends of Minnesota Barns calendar.

Carl accepted the award at the group’s Fall Harvest Celebration in Wayzata. He became so emotional that Wanda had to take over and finish telling the painting party story for Carl, who lost his sister to cancer several years later.

“Carl started talking, and he choked up right away,” says Richter. “I knew it was important to him to win this.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529