Preservationists, owner at odds over historic barn

Posted: Friday, September 21, 2001

WASILLA (AP) -- Preservationists and the owner of a historic barn in the Mat-Su Valley are skirmishing over the property.

Members of the local historical society say they want to move the barn and restore it. But the owner wants to get rid of the building to make way for an expanding gravel pit.

A.J. Schwichtenberg said he feels people are trying to bully him into giving up the barn. ''People are calling me up and telling me what to do with my stuff,'' he said.

Besides, Schwichtenberg said, he promised to let Mat-Su fire officials burn the barn as a training exercise. And he won't go back on that promise, even though fire officials say they don't object to moving the barn.

''I gave my word with the Fire Department,'' he said.

The barn is not the hottest-looking piece of property in Mat-Su. The structure's once cherry-red paint has weathered to a dull orange and is peeling. Some of the wood is rotting. But valley barn buffs estimate fewer than 50 such structures remain from Colonist days, when the federal government in the 1930s brought down-on-their-luck Midwesterners to Mat-Su in hopes of starting new lives.

Just over 200 families were given homesteads with farmhouses and barns. Many left within a few years, put off by the harsh climate and tough land, and little remains from those days.

Each year their numbers shrink, said LeRoi Heaven, president of the Wasilla-Knik-Willow Historical Society. Two have burned down in the past couple of years. Others are literally rotting into the ground.

''They're worth saving,'' Heaven said.

Schwichtenberg thinks otherwise.

''It's just an old barn,'' he said. ''It's not like it has a history. It's just a barn.''

The Jensen barn, as it is called, is named after Henry and Edna Jensen, a Minnesota couple who became its first owners in 1935. It sits off Jensen Road just a few short blocks from the Parks Highway next to a racetrack and a few homes.

The Jensen barn is in better shape than some, said Doug Olson, a local builder who has helped save two barns and hopes to save this one as well.

The timbers for it were laid on a concrete foundation. Construction of many of the other barns began simply with logs on the ground. Those buildings have rotted beyond repair, Olson said.

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