Recycling old Minn. barns gives ex-offenders new skills

ELKO, Minn. -- When Scott Tempel and his wife Kara bought their 13-acre farm in Scott County, Minn., a year and a half ago, it came with a storybook dairy barn that had faded red boards, a steep metal roof and an old brick silo.

ELKO, Minn. -- When Scott Tempel and his wife Kara bought their 13-acre farm in Scott County, Minn., a year and a half ago, it came with a storybook dairy barn that had faded red boards, a steep metal roof and an old brick silo.

There was only one problem: It was falling apart.

"The homeowner when we did the first walk-through was like, 'Well, the barn's free!'" Tempel recalled. "You didn't really want to go in there. We've got kids and visitors and when you're worried about people falling through the floor, it's not a good situation."

Old wooden barns are disappearing from Minnesota's landscape. They can be expensive to maintain, and not suited to the needs of modern farming. Some topple over in a storm. Others are torn down or burned.

As he contemplated what to do with his barn, Tempel contacted Friends of Minnesota Barns, a nonprofit organization that serves as a resource for people who want to preserve, repurpose or relocate historic barns. He learned that fixing the old barn could have cost more than $32,000.


As Tempel and his wife keep horses, they didn't need a tall dairy barn with a milking parlor.

So he decided to recycle it.

"We can save these timbers," Tempel said. "You're not doing the air pollution, you're saving the landfill and you're also creating a new product that can be reused."

Better Futures Minnesota, which helps men who have been incarcerated learn new job skills and rebuild their lives, was happy to reclaim Tempel's barn.

"We're going to take this wood -- this 100-year-old wood that is probably, you know, old growth from 300-year-old trees -- and give it new life," said Tim Roman, a consultant for the group. He said most of the weathered boards will become furniture, flooring or construction materials.

"We want to target something like a 90 percent recovery rate," Roman said. "But when you're talking about 100-year-old barn wood that's seen a 100 Minnesota winters, it's a challenge to get every last stick."

The four-man crew trying to salvage every last stick of wood from the barn is new to the work, said Jimmy Wren, a senior crew chief who is teaching the men construction skills.

"Every day I see a big progress in them you know? So it's huge when it comes to getting released from prison," Wren said. "It's hard to find jobs so we're teaching them skills that they can take somewhere else one day, hopefully."


The two men who are sawing the recovered boards into usable lengths and pulling old nails includes 35-year old Ronald Crisp of St. Paul, who has been with the program since October.

Crisp, who was jailed 21 months on a domestic abuse charge, said the program offered him a way to build a work history. He likes the work because at the end of the day is able to see his progress, his work is still there and people can enjoy it.

"What it takes is determination, and 100 percent tired of negativity," he said. "And when you're tired with that, and you're dissatisfied with yourself, you will change, and that's what happened with me."

Crisp said he grew tired of his life on the streets and wanted to set a better example for his children.

That's also the motivation for his crew mate, 25-year-old Doy Johns of north Minneapolis.

"I was gone for 34 months, three years for possession of a firearm. Just want to do something different. I got six kids, that's all young, under the age of six," Johns said. "So I just wanted to do something different and show them a different positive role model because I've been missing for three years out of their life."

The men are paid $12 an hour, and have health care, housing, and a life coach. Better Futures Minnesota works with trade unions to help the men graduate to better paying jobs.

Next month, Friends of Minnesota Barns is hosting a tour to showcase some of the best preservation and re-use ideas for Minnesota's historic barns.


Matt Gregg, a master carpenter for Better Futures said in its day, Tempel's barn was probably the "Cadillac of dairy barns" with boards 12 to 16 feet long.

"I've seen a lot of barns," Gregg said. "This one was very well put together. A lot of pride went into it."

As he looked at how the barn has been stripped down to its studs, Tempel said that for ones like it that can't be saved, he hopes at least the timber will go to someone who needs it.

As the crew tried to come up with a strategy, to turn the barn on its side to pick its carcass clean, Tempel reflected on the community that built it -- and how the nearly century-old barn is now giving rise to a different kind of community building.

"In its dying gasp, this barn can really provide a lot of future for people in various ways," he said.

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