BUHL • Last Christmas, Mother Nature gave Tom Gilbertson the worst present he could receive.
“My heart dropped when I saw it,” Gilbertson said. “It made me sick.”
The century-old dairy barn with which he had fallen in love some 10 years before was nearly felled by a gust of wind. One corner of its magnificent roof was ripped from its concrete walls, toppling one of its two onion-domed cupolas and leaving a gaping hole in its silhouette against the cold winter sky.
That the barn was left standing is a testament to the mastery of its builder, German-Russian immigrant Henry Schick.
The barn was a landmark southeast of Buhl. It still is; it’s just not as majestic as it once was.
Gilbertson is determined to change that.
The retired banker from Twin Falls wants to turn the barn into a living museum, an experiential display of period farm life. He’ll need money and elbow grease to restore the historically significant symbol of early Idaho agriculture before it crumbles.
• • •
When Gilbertson spotted Schick’s dairy barn during a workday inspecting agricultural loan properties, it looked like someone had, decades before, sold the milk cows and walked away.
That’s just about what happened, said Jim Musgrave, Schick’s grandson.
Musgrave’s mother, Eleanor, was born at the Schick home. Her parents split up when she was young — and that’s where the story gets a little fuzzy. In any case, the dairy sat empty and not maintained for many decades, the 76-year-old Musgrave said.
The dairy barn was never upgraded from its original 1914 design, making it a prime candidate for the National Register of Historic Places. With architectural significance as well, it was listed in 1983.
• • •
Schick played a key role in the development of Idaho’s early dairy industry, as did Gustave Kunze, the Tillamook, Ore., dairyman who brought Schick to the Magic Valley.
Kunze visited the Buhl area in 1910 and decided to stay. He bought a section of land southeast of Buhl, and he and Schick built the largest dairy barn in the state in 1912.
They also built a cheese factory, which attracted Kunze’s Tillamook neighbors — dairymen Alfred Carlson, Riley Maxwell, T.P. Bowlby and A.A. Stauffacher. They eventually moved to Buhl, built barns and sold their milk to Kunze’s Clover Leaf Cheese Factory.
Schick built or was involved in the building of many Buhl barns. The main portion of each is a rectangular, two-story, balloon-frame structure with a gambrel — double-sloped — roof. Schick’s barns can be distinguished by their concrete walls. Although Schick’s barns exhibit similarities in materials and workmanship, two distinct dairy barn types emerged: one more squat and the other narrower and taller.
While barns of many styles graced the south-central Idaho landscape, the Kunze barn was the first in the area built specifically for dairying. The architectural transition that followed is significant, said Fred Walters, a historical architect with years of experience in the influences of technology on Idaho’s agricultural buildings.
A rapid succession of roof styles emerged between 1912 and 1914 as dairymen asked for barns with more and more space in the second-story loft to store hay.
Kunze’s barn was enormous. It had to be in order to house, feed and milk 100 cows.
A ramp from the outside to the second story allowed hay wagons to drive into the loft’s 70-by-120-foot expanse to stack 200 tons of hay.
Twelve heavy, 25-foot-high posts were needed to support the 32-foot-high gambrel roof, which obstructed much-needed space and maneuverability in the loft and below.
Midway through construction of the Kunze barn, Schick began a similar barn for Bowlby. That one rested the weight of the roof on the loft, rather than the ground, which opened up more room on the ground floor.
Schick’s third barn, built for Carlson, was similar to but smaller than the Bowlby barn. The main difference in the Carlson barn was its lack of a ramp to the hay loft. Hay was unloaded outside the building under the gable end of the barn. A hay sling hung from the hay hood extending from the roof which protected the hay door at loft level. Hay was raised in the sling to the loft and stacked, using a track-and-pulley system.
Then Schick’s barn designs began to take a dramatic departure from the first three, as the barns became significantly narrower but proportionately taller.
The upward-stretched gambrel roofs, flared at the eaves, were topped with uniquely handcrafted cupolas, creating a striking appearance, even from a distance.
Schick built the Max Dau barn in 1913, then followed it with his own barn of nearly identical construction, but on a grand scale — and with the grace that would claim Gilbertson’s heart nearly a century later.
• • •
As barn builders experimented to get the most efficient use of space and materials, their designs also revealed the cultural influences and origins of builders and dairymen.
Schick came to North America from Russia as an infant. His family had left Germany in a large migration, then left Russia when the Germans were persecuted in late in the 1870s, Musgrave said.
Eventually, the family landed in Chicago, where Schick and his older brother were raised.
Schick became a homebuilder. His brother taught him how to pour concrete, and he picked up the art of forging iron.
After Schick came west, Kunze got him started building barns and eventually got him interested in starting his own dairy.
Schick’s laborious construction of his own barn may seem like overkill, considering he milked such a small herd of Guernseys; his barn holds only 10 stanchions. But the precision of Schick’s work and attention to detail reveal a true love of barn-building.
He built a house at the corner of the property, but the bathroom was in the barn.
The handcrafted cupolas on top of Schick’s roof and grain silo give a Kremlin-esque reminder of his family roots.
It was the striking appearance and excellent craftsmanship of Schick’s work that attracted Gilbertson to the barn. In 2013, he founded a nonprofit group, Historic Barn Society of the Magic Valley, with the idea of restoring the barn.
Musgrave and the two other heirs to the Schick property split off the barn and an acre of the farm and donated it to Gilbertson’s group, with certain stipulations about its preservation. The group began some work on the barn, with a grant from the Idaho Heritage Trust.
Then tragedy struck.
• • •
While the concrete walls remain solid, the wind took a bite out of the southwest corner of the barn’s roof, leaving the remaining timber perilously tottering 38 feet up. Gilbertson braced the walls with scaffolding and cable in an attempt to stabilize what is left.
“Tom has a huge job ahead of him,” Walters said.
Walters visited the barn before the Christmas Eve 2014 windstorm, when the barn was still in decent shape. He hasn’t seen it since the windstorm.
Restoring the barn won’t be impossible, he said. But it will be expensive.
Gilbertson estimates the restoration project will cost a minimum of $30,000. It has turned into a bigger project than he first planned, but for Gilbertson it’s a labor of love.
“I’m not getting frustrated,” he said, “but I’m discouraged that it will take more time now.”
Preservation groups such as the Idaho Heritage Trust have money for restoration projects. Gilbertson is a member of the National Barn Alliance, which also has money for preservation.
Next on the plan is taking measurements and making drawings next spring for a major rebuilding. Those are first steps for a grant application.
“We won’t have to rebuild the whole barn, Gilbertson said, “but we will have to start at the core of the hayloft.”
The nonprofit will have to hire a contractor. “The major work can’t be done by volunteers,” he said.
Meanwhile, Gilbertson continues to putter around in Schick’s barn.
“There’s still a lot of mystery about the barn, and I never get tired of discovering more things about it,” he said. “I wish Schick were still here.”