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Barn finds new life

St. Joseph couple reusing barn, one board at a time

By Marilyn Salzl Brinkman of St. Joseph

Joe Bechtold holds a frame he made from wood taken from his old wooden barn. Contributed photo

The old-fashioned wooden barns of yesteryear are reminders of our cultural heritage. Those still standing physically link us to our past. Joe and Joanne Bechtold’s farm in rural St. Joseph has one such barn. This granite foundation Western (Prairie) style barn is reminiscent of bygone times.

The barn was an architectural achievement in its day -- beautiful and functional. It stood proudly in this primarily agricultural community. Joe and Joanne stopped using it as a dairy barn in 1978.

Today the old barn is near collapse. It no longer serves its original purpose. It has suffered deterioration from sun, snow, sleet, rain and other elements/insects that attack old wood.

Joe and Joanne, however, realize and love the stunning textures, patterns, patinas and color hues in the old wood. Each board is different depending upon which direction it faced and how nature affected it.

Recently, there has been a resurgence of recycling, reusing, and restoring the wood from old buildings. The boards from the floor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church are one example of this. The old floorboards were either sold for recycling by others or parishioners took them and made their own crosses, picture frames, and furniture.

Joe and Joanne’s barn is now being used for various projects. Contributed photo

About six years ago the Bechtold’s decided they would not bulldoze or burn their old barn. Joe would reuse the boards. He carefully removes the pine boards from the walls of the haymow area and recycles their natural beauty into furniture, picture frames, wall hangings, crosses for confirmation students, and other useful and unique items for family and friends.

It all began, he said, when his daughter-in-law asked him to make a picture frame for her out of the old wood. “That’s how I got started. Now I think, why burn it when it’s still useful. When I have a project or want some wood for a project, I just take what I need.”

Joe said he doesn’t follow a pattern. He lets the wood tell him what to do. Sometimes he makes layers to get a more three-dimensional look. It can be seen in the frame he put around a picture of himself and Joanne.

To emphasize the various textures and colors, he makes wall hangings in the shape of crosses or any shape that presents itself.

Wooded cross piece of art made from Joe and Joanne's barn. Contributed photo

“The old wood is just as good as store-bought wood, but it is embedded with accumulated sand and dirt,” said Joe, who power-washes the wood before putting a saw blade to it.

“It cracks easily and I don’t sand it because I want to maintain its texture. But, oh, it’s hard on saws!”

He prefers a natural look. “I use only the bare minimum of tools; a table saw and a mitering saw. No joiner, except for where the glass goes.”

In their heyday, barns were multi-purpose buildings common in rural areas, serving the needs of individual farmers. They were living, breathing structures that took on new functions and new looks as the years passed, and the seasons changed. Today their boards hang on walls, compliment standing furniture, or sit silently on shelves, nightstands, or windowsills. They are silent reminders of days gone by.

Joe and Joanne will take the barn down eventually. “Other people have offered to do it but we’re not in a hurry. Once it isn’t safe anymore, maybe. Right now, we’ll just take it board by board.”

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