Though the resemblance to an old barn remains, there are several noticeable changes made to the building, which suggest that it is now a home. BRETTA GRABAU/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP
Though the resemblance to an old barn remains, there are several noticeable changes made to the building, which suggest that it is now a home. BRETTA GRABAU/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP

Not many barns today are the traditional red barns one might see in a country magazine, painting or history book. With the advancement in technology and machinery, farmers now have the capacity to work hundreds of acres, milk hundreds of cows and many do not store hay in a barn’s hay loft anymore.

Many such barns have fallen into disrepair, torn down or have collapsed. However, a few individuals choose to remake the barns into a different living space - their own.

Robert and Dollie Acton bought a farm on Highway 52, located just north of Poet Biorefining in Preston, in 2007. When they moved there from Platteville, Wis., the first three years were spent in the old farmhouse that had been builtmore than 100 years previously.

There was one problem. It let air through like a sieve.

"The old house was built in 1900 and remodeled in 1950, but it was a matter of where the wind blew," Robert stated. "To keep the wind from blowing through you can't have leaks in the windows and doors. That house never got warmer than 68 degrees."

The barn stood not far from the house where the Actons first lived. And, like many similar barns from that era, no farmer was using it.

"It was built (somewhere between) 1929 to 1930, at the end of the loose hay era," Robert noted. "I went to the farmers around the land to see if they would be using it at all. But they weren't interested and this barn would not have been able to handle big machinery."

One day, he walked into the dark interior of the barn, cut a hole in one of the walls and witnessed the gorgeous view over the countryside.

"It is a beautiful view and we just wanted to do it here," he said.

Taking that into consideration, Acton made up his mind to renovate the barn into a home. Since he and his wife did not want to remain in the old house for long, they looked into ideas of what else to do.

Because of certain regulations, they were unable to build a new home on their property and decided to redo the barn.

Now, once one is inside the building, one can hardly recognize the home was once a barn.

For several years, construction workers redid the barn, removing the horse stalls, cattle pens and cow stalls in the basement and putting in ceilings, electricity, plumbing and much more. After years of work, the Actons moved into their new home in 2010, although there was still a lot of work required to put into the building.

"The whole floor in the building is heated," Robert said, highly recommending that kind of heating system in anyone's home.

There are a number of noticeable changes when approaching the barn from outside. A garage was added to the building and many windows were installed in the walls of the former haymow as well as several windows in the roof. There are also big, glass double doors in the center of the building.

However, two cupolas remain mounted on the rooftop, retaining its barn style.

"The cupolas had to be repaired. There were holes shot in them and the bases were rusty. They had to be rebuilt," Robert stated.

After reviewing his options, he found the man he was looking for to complete the project — Emery Miller.

Inside, on the ground level, not many would be able to recognize what had been housed there many years ago. A living area, kitchenette, office, bedroom, sewing cubicle and shop area all replaced the livestock's home in the barn.

"The wood shop used to be horse stalls and the doors leading outside are four feet wide. I always wanted a workshop, but they had no heat in the winter. This one does," Robert declared.

"The bedroom used to be the bullpen. The back door used to be the way the farmers would carry in silage from the silo," he continued.

On top of the new and heated cement floor, lovely, thick carpeting creates a cushion as one walks through the house. Some farm paintings and antique furniture line the walls and give the basement a comfortable air to it.

Because of the structure of the building, when it still had stalls, there are large beams that strengthen the upper levels as part of the ceiling. These may be the most prominent display of what the building was in its former life, aside from the windows in the lower level.

Robert's favorite room in the renovated barn happens to be on this floor.

"It bothered me that when people come in from mowing and take off their shoes, they don't have a sink or place to clean up right there. They have to go to the other end of the house to clean and shower," he said.

His mud room gives him a closet to keep his working clothes and boots in while also providing a sink, toilet and shower for him to clean up so he does not have to track in dirt throughout the building.

Walking up the stairs, one emerges in the middle of a large, open and well-lit room which once remained darkened. With almost cathedral-like ceilings, 12-feet high, this room holds the playroom, living room, dining room and kitchen in one great space.

"We knew that eight foot ceilings would not work and 10 feet didn't seem to work just right, so we went to 12 feet," Robert related.

Reminiscent of what used to belong in the barn, several supporting posts do remain in this great room. These proved to be a challenge to disguise in the new design.

"The beams support the room and we were concerned on how to work with them. We got advice from Jim and Joe Hahn. They were very helpful. Jim would come every two or three weeks," Robert commented.

Eventually, cabinets made by Eli Schwartzentruber were mounted on the north wall around the supporting beams.

Work progressed well as Robert received the Hahns’ advice. But one particularly clever idea came from Robert himself. Once walking through the double, glass doors, one can see a closet door on the left-hand side, seeming as though it is a wall. It isn't. The closet is two sided with doors on both the front and back sides, one on the north side and one on the south side. This allows guests to put their coats in the closet without having to bother Robert and Dollies own coats and vice versa.

The main floor also holds a spare bedroom and bathroom, a laundry room, the master bed and bath and a tremendously large walk-in closet with a counter.

 "The counter is very handy to be able to fold clothes on," Dollie noted.

Robert credited Dollie with the work done on the walls, choosing the color scheme and staining the woodwork throughout the house.

"Dollie did all the painting, color coordination and staining the wood. I am blessed to have had her help on this project," he stated.

This floor also has heating installed in it as well, requiring a furnace in a small compartment between the main floor and the attic. On the first two floors, much of the furniture spread throughout the building was furniture the Actons had already owned for some time. Only one couch was bought to accommodate the home. Several bedroom sets, dressers, chairs, cabinets and desks the couple had inherited from their parents and other ancestors were added as well. Some have been restored somewhat by Schwartzentruber, but their historic and sentimental value still remain.

Naturally, living in a barn ensures high ceilings, but even with a 12-foot ceiling on the main level, there is still a lot of empty space in the attic.

When entering the "attic," one stands on sheets upon sheets of USB board that provide the ceiling and insulation for the home.

"The floor is 40 feet by 80 feet and we used 100 sheets of USB board," Robert detailed.

The remains of what the barn once looked like can be seen in this "attic" space. None of the walls are painted, retaining the original board color. The track once used for the hay hook still hangs from the ceiling, and the separator still hangs in the building. Of course, a few more windows were punched into the walls to ensure more light for the space, but other than that, one can still envision the history of the barn itself.

One of the big hurdles in the project was fixing the roof of the barn. After many years of no use and disrepair, the barn needed a new face, cover and roof.

"This barn stood from 1930 to 2008. We needed a new roof because it was leaking. It had wooden shingles and asphalt shingles on top of that, but I had 15 five gallon buckets set out to catch rainwater. The barn needed a new face and cover, otherwise it would not last another 50 years," Robert stated.

As they fixed up the roof, rather than using either wooden or asphalt shingles, the Actons had a metal roof installed.

Attached to the building is a large and spacious two-car garage. Rather than being on the same level as either the main floor or the ground floor, the garage sits in between them, with a nice looking staircase connected to both levels.

"I wanted to have a large garage for the space," Robert noted, remembering the accidents he has had in smaller, two-car garages.

A momentous project of converting a barn into a home took the Actons about five years to complete the transformation. However, in Robert's opinion, he did not need to have a full, concrete plan in place before beginning.

"Jim and Joe (Hahn) gave us some help with the project, and we got help even in Menards. We just put it together, step-by-step, not getting it done all at once," he said.

Dollie and Robert conveyed one other interesting tidbit of information for history lovers. Many years ago, the barn served as a gathering spot with a band and dances for the area during the summer months when the barn was mostly empty. One of the most infamous and notable characters from Chicago did attend a dance in that barn.

When the time came for him to run from the authorities and take refuge somewhere out of state in Wisconsin, Iowa or Minnesota, he stopped by this particular barn when it was still young. That gangster was Al Capone.