By Kristin Darrow
The Times 

Historic Waitsburg Barn Gets Grant for Restoration

 

Bill Rodgers/Kristin Darrow

WAITSBURG-I was fortunate to move to the Waitsburg area in 2016 and my move was entirely because of a barn. That barn will be getting some much-needed restoration work, thanks in part to grant funding from the Washington State Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation's (DAHP) historic barn grant program.

In 2016, a friend and I were vacationing here from Seattle and drove down Lower Waitsburg Road at dusk. As I crested a hill, I saw my dream property-a white 1920's farmhouse standing in an emerald green field next to a big red barn. Love at first sight. That dream property happened to have a For Sale sign in front of it and, counter to any rational thought (I knew nothing about the area after all, I lived a five-hour drive away and most importantly, I had no idea what maintaining ten acres of Palouse ground and century-old buildings would entail), I had an offer on the house within two days. A few months later, I was the proud owner of one of the area's most visible and iconic barns.


In 1919, Ernest and Charlotte Mikkelsen built the barn and farmhouse I own, located on the west side of Lower Waitsburg Road, about six miles south of Waitsburg. Starting in the 1920's the Mikkelsen's ran one of the founding wheat farming enterprises in the valley, specializing in treating and selling wheat seed to other farmers.

One of the things that impressed me about the property was how "left alone" it was-as though time had stood still and gathered a few inches of dust and spider webs around it to keep it company. I was awed by the immediate sense of history and place and that sense of awe speaks to me still, every single day. I consider it an honor and responsibility to steward and care for these buildings which, like other farmsteads in the valley, tell an important piece of Palouse farming history.


While "left alone" may be an asset in terms of relaying a sense of history, it also means years of neglect and decay for the buildings. The historic barn complex consists of five closely clustered wooden buildings: the main barn (visible from Lower Waitsburg Road), the granary building (also visible), the adjacent truck ramp building (no longer standing), storage sheds, and a sheep pen.

A majority of the restoration work will focus on stabilizing the wooden granary building which is especially significant in telling the story of the Mikkelsen's farming operation. The granary structure is freestanding but connected to the main barn through underground conveyor belts. This system relayed the seed from the granary's bins to the main barn for truck loading through an overhead chute. The motor and conveyor belt remains intact, but the granary building itself is badly in need of stabilization.


The grant funds will help replace the rotting foundation sill, the roof structure, and the restoration of doors and windows on the granary building as well as a fresh coat of paint. The main barn structure requires several repairs, including restoration of the large sliding doors on both ends of the building, window repair, and exterior painting.

Barns must be listed on the Washington Heritage Barn Register to be eligible for rehabilitation grants from DAHP. After success in having the barn added to the registry in 2017, I was able to follow up with the grant application and just received notice of the award.


Recipients of DAHP rehabilitation grants are encouraged to continue using the barns for agricultural use and make them accessible to the community. Working with Kate Hockersmith of Touchet Valley music program (TVAMP), the barn has been frequently used for the Mythical/Moveable Blue Mountain Bluegrass Jams held on Friday evenings. Locations and times for the jam are listed in The Times calendar. Email Hockersmith at tvamp1@charter.net to sign up for the bluegrass jam newsletter. All are welcome and encouraged to attend the jams as players or listeners.

One of the challenges in a restoration project like this is finding qualified and skilled labor to do the work. Now that I have the green light from the grant program, I am looking for qualified craftspeople who know the types of carpentry and stabilization work required. The grant requires the funded restoration work to be completed in 2023, and I would be grateful for any references for barn restoration skills in the area. I can be reached at kristin.darrow@gmail.com if you or someone you know are interested in this project (or have any history about the Mikkelsen farmstead you wish to share with me).


The Mikkelsens had no children, and though I did not know the couple, I feel I have come to know them through the buildings they left. I hope the barn's restoration will ensure the buildings stand for another century to come and I hope the buildings serve the community as a proud reminder of the grit and resourcefulness of the families that settled this valley.

 

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