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Kettle River man breathes new life into old barn

Today, Harry Kaspszak's newly renovated barn is a far cry from its earlier days (below) when it was damaged by hail and wind. See online gallery of photos attached to this story.

Picture the scene at the 1926 Polish wedding dance of Elizabeth Kaspszak and Frank Pasek in the loft of the Kaspszak barn just outside Kettle River, as envisioned through the eyes of local historian Edwin Manny: "After the marriage ceremony, the feasting and gaiety started....There was always plenty of food and refreshments for everyone [at an old-fashioned Polish wedding dance of that time], with plenty of meat and homemade rye bread. The bride's parents furnished the food and in most cases, the building for the dancing. The groom or his family furnished the

liquid refreshments. ...Since there were no dance halls in those days, in many cases the dance was held in the hay loft of the barn.... The guests would enjoy themselves dancing to the music of accordions and concertinas, furnished by some local popular band. The feasting and merriment would last sometimes as long as three days."

Today, the 89-year-old barn still stands - though with a new lease on life, thanks to the amazing restoration of third-generation owner Harry Kaspszak. Kaspszak's efforts earned him the "Most Dramatic Rescue" award from the Friends of Minnesota Barns in October, elevating the family barn to an elite status in a day and time when many such historic structures have been left to deteriorate and collapse.

And while the award program was the final key that triggered the renovation process, Kaspszak's motivation was far more broad-reaching.

"I wanted to preserve the memories of growing up on a small family farm," said Kaspszak, "and keep it as a monument to the immigrants who had to rebuild their lives after the 1918 fires - especially those who found protection from the flames on the Kaspszak potato field in October 1918."

Kaspszak's grandparents came to Minnesota from Poland as a newlywed couple in 1887 and bought 80 acres of land in Split Rock Township. Through the years, they added another section of land here and there, and their farm eventually grew to

160 acres.

They brought up four sons and four daughters and farmed the land, raising pigs, chickens and cows. Then, everything was destroyed in the 1918 fire - including the barn.

"There are eyewitness accounts from a lot of different people who fled over here to the Kaspszak farm after Kettle River went up in flames," said Kaspszak, who has conducted extensive research on the 1918 fire as it affected the Kettle River area. "I had a lot of aunts and uncles in the area, and they all saved themselves from the fire in the potato field by burying themselves under the


Kaspszak also learned through his research, done primarily in the archives of the Moose Lake newspapers, that homeowners who were wiped out by the fire tended to rebuild their barns first.

"Money was pretty tight back then," he related, "so money went into the barn before anything else."

He said there was frequent mention in the newspapers of men with portable sawmills travelling throughout the area and cutting standing timber that wasn't destroyed by the fire to use in the reconstruction efforts.

"When I was a kid, one of the jobs I had was to go up in the hay mow and pack loose hay as it came in," he recalled. "As I went up along the roof joists, I would look at the timbers there and I could see scorch marks, likely from the 1918 fire."

Based on his research, Kaspszak deduced that the family barn, a typical wood frame, gambrel-roofed dairy barn, was likely rebuilt during that same era.

Fast forward to the next generation - when Kaspszak's parents inherited the farm and raised their own family there. Kaspszak graduated from Moose Lake High School in 1962 and then went into the Navy at the tender age of 17. His parents continued to struggle to make a living at a time when small farms were no longer lucrative enough to make a full-time living. They decided to bring their dairy operations to a close in 1974.

"Farming had just gotten so out of hand by then," he said. "You had to go into it big time. My dad had to get a second job plowing roads for the county, and then he got a second job working at the paper mill."

After the Kaspszaks decided to quit farming, a neighbor who lived down the road wanted to use the barn for hay storage.

"They loaded that thing up, and when I came home on leave one day from the Navy, it was loaded with bales all the way up to the peak," he related. "As it happened, that was just too much, and I said we had to get the hay out of there. When we did, eventually the barn started leaning and it was on the verge of collapse."

It was difficult for Kaspszak to keep tabs on the deteriorating condition of the barn, however, because he was traveling around the world with the Navy. After getting out of his four-year hitch in the service, he had gone to trade school at Northwest Technical Institute in St. Louis Park on the GI bill and spent five or six years working as a draftsman, until the job got to be too much for him. He'd come up to the family farm on weekends and help out where he could, but he ended up going back to work for the Navy department as a civilian and worked on special projects for 32 years.

"I'd come home and look at that barn and think, 'Gosh, there are so many memories there,'" he confessed, "but what are you going to do?"

In 1976, he decided to have a contractor come out and push the leaning barn back into position and have sheer braces erected on the inside to keep it upright. At the same time, he also had the roof redone with asphalt shingles to replace the old cedar shakes, thinking to himself with renewed determination, "We're going to save the barn."

Over the years, however, the weather continued to take its toll on the old barn. Just before Kaspszak decided to retire in 1999, there was a hail storm that tore up the roof of the barn as well as smashing the whole north and east side.

"If you looked inside the barn, all you could see was daylight on that north wall," he said. "The hail just stripped everything off."

He moved home to help out his mother, who was living on the farm alone by then.

"I wondered what I was going to do about the barn, because it was just going to cost too much to restore it," he said.

For the next 10 years he watched the barn slowly decline. One day he learned of an organization known as "Friends of Minnesota Barns." He decided to become a member of the non-profit organization and contacted them to get a list of contractors that specialize in renovating barns, but he admitted the cost "sort of scared me away!"

A couple of years later, he called barn renovation expert JimTalenko and asked him to come out to the farm to take a look at the barn.

"It was pretty convenient because he lives right in Barnum, though he does work all over the country," said Kaspszak. "By that time, I was really charged up and said, 'OK, I'm going to do it!' After nine years of dealing with pails, washtubs and tarps in the hayloft, I made the decision to have the barn restored externally to its 1922 configuration."

The barn's renovation got under way with the slow, painstaking process of virtually lifting it back onto its foundation.

"At one point, the barn had been lifted off its foundation when a strong gust of wind had hit it, and it had to be completely lifted up and set back down on its foundation," explained Kaspszak. "I had known there were some issues, because it seemed as though it just didn't sit right."

Through one entire winter,

Talenko used cables, come-alongs and jacks to lift the barn up and set it back down.

"He strung cables inside and every couple of weeks he'd come and put a little more tension on those cables," Kaspszak said. "You could hear that barn creaking, but once it started snapping he'd quit. Then he'd come back in a couple more weeks and put some more tension on the cables. It was all hydraulics."

Talenko also replaced a lot of the rotting timbers underneath the barn, braces were added to all four corners of the barn as well as to the roof trusses, and collar ties were added to the rafters in the hayloft. All of the windows were replaced with no-maintenance vinyl sashes, all of the doors were reproduced to their original Dutch-door design, a set of stairs was installed to the hayloft, and metal sheathing was applied to the exterior.

"If I was going to spend all that money on it, I wanted this barn to stand for the next generation," explained Kaspszak. "I don't know what's going to happen to me, or what's going to happen to the barn after I leave. But I know that barn is going to stand. It's going to be here for the next 100 years."

When the project neared its completion late this year, Kaspszak completed an application for the "Barn of the Year" awards and found out in September that he was a


The award winners were announced in October at a special ceremony at the Friends of Minnesota Barns' Fall Harvest Reception in Lakeville. Kaspszak's renovation was honored as the top barn in the contest's "Most Dramatic Rescue" category, and he was awarded a large plaque for his efforts.

Kaspszak is now continuing work on the interior of the barn, restoring electricity, jacking up the floor joists to reposition a crooked wall and repairing the floor of the barn's magnificent hayloft - the one that once housed his aunt's wedding dance.

As for the future, Kaspszak said he would love to see the barn's hayloft once again used for a wedding dance, or perhaps as a museum for the tractors he's restored along with other antique farm machinery.

"The possibilities are limitless as to what a person could do....." he mused.

For the time being, however, the bright red barn brings him great satisfaction, just to see it restored to its former grandeur.

"The memories are still there," he said. "I busted my arm when I was a little kid inside that barn, jumping up on a milk stool. I lost my footing and went down on the cement floor. My brother was in back of me and saw it happen, and he said he could hear that arm break like a stick snapping. And then there was the time my dad wanted to put a coat of paint on the barn so he built a little scaffold. I was pulling him up with a line from the tractor hooked to a pulley on the peak of the roof. He got a little ways above the barn when that rope broke. After that, he said nobody was going to be painting the barn anymore! Nobody ever did put a coat of paint on the barn, and that was probably one of the reasons that it deteriorated."

In looking back, Kaspszak said he wishes he would have asked a lot more questions about the barn's history as he was growing up and then written it all down.

"With each generation," he concluded, "something more gets lost."

With his generation, however, something also got saved.