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Niles Daily Star

Saturday, Nov. 11, 2006

Rebuilding history

Walton Road barn struck by tornado in 2004

By Any Hamilton

   NILES - The July 21, 2004 tornado leveled the storage building next door to Bryan and Kathleen Virgil’s Walton Road property.
   From there, the same swirling cloud hit the top of the Virgil’s barn, headed south and took out the top of the tree in front of the farm house and bolted east into a corn field.  Bryan said the neighbors were home, but he and his wife were not in the area.
  “It took down the steel grain bin and took down the trees like they were nothing.  [The neighbor’s storage building] was completely leveled and thrown into the corn field,” Bryan said.  “The only thing left was the stuff in the garage and the cement base.  But it couldn’t take the barn down.”
   The barn on the Virgil’s property, though at least 150 years old, is still standing today.  In fact, Bryan and Kathleen, who now live in St. Joseph and rent out the farmhouse, are having the structure restored to its original form.
   The chunk of land just west of the Walton Road-U.S. 31 bypass was sold to its first owner by the U.S. Government in 1831.  Kathleen’s father, Charles Stark, labored on the more than 100-acres of property for another owner for 25 years before the Virgil’s purchased it in 1989,  Bryan said he and his wife bought the land so Stark could continue farming corn and soybeans.

   Until the tornado struck, the historic barn was used as storage for tractors.  The building was not insured because it carries little value, and, Bryan said, is also expensive to replace.  He also said the property would have to be declared an historic site in order to get state aid to restore the structure.
   Bryan said he and Kathleen eventually felt it was worthwhile to invest some money into the barn.  The goal, he added, was to have it architecturally sound and still resemble the original look.
   The Virgil’s called Sam and Peggy Stitt, owners of Great lakes Barn Preservation of Hesperia.  Stitt said he and his family have been in the business of restoring century-plus old barns for the last 30 years.
   They are responsible for reconstructing the 2005 Michigan Barn Preservation Network barn of the year in Colon.  Before and after photos of their previous projects can be found at greatlakesbarn.com.
   Bryan and Kathleen’s barn, however, was possibly the oldest Sam’s worked on, and, was the first he said he’s seen with walls reaching more than 20 feet.  The normal height, he said, was about 14 to 18 feet.
   “Our equipment’s just maxed out,” Sam said, pointing to a forklift stretching 20 feet toward the roof of the barn and supporting three workers.
   Lying in bundles on the grass west of the barn are stacks of 1-inch thick Michigan white pine, the same type of material Sam said was first used to shell in the hand-hewn braces.  The braces are a sign the barn dates back to at least the 1850’s and probably earlier, which, Sam said, is unusually old for this part of the country. 
   There are two advantages to using the white pine, Sam added.
   “The pine lasts the longest and it was the traditional wood that was used,” he said, “We like to keep it as traditional as we can.”
   Which is why Sam said he is also using as much of the material left over from the barn – including one beam that was speared 3 feet into the ground by the tornado – to frame around the joists inside and create new doors and openings on the east side of the building.
   The reconstruction started by jacking up ends of the barn that had sagged throughout the years.  From there, his crew began hammering down a new

   Next will come the inner walls built with old lumber, followed by a 30 lb. felt wrap and a fresh layer of white pine.  Once finished, Sam said the barn would be sturdy enough to “last for 100 years.”
   Great Lakes Barn started the project - their eighth this year – one week ago.  The whole process takes anywhere from three to four weeks, depending on the condition of the building, Sam said.
   “Most often, they haven’t had any work done on them for 30 to 40 years,” he added.  “We’ve never found one we couldn’t fix.”
   That’s good news for the Virgil’s.
   “Right now our first priority is just to restore the barn to the way it was 175 years ago,” Bryan said.


Niles Daily Star

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