Proudly raised, never razed: Winner of iconic barns contest was reinforced by friendship

05/31/2014 7:27 PM

06/03/2014 11:45 AM

When we heard back in February that Coke was looking for the perfect barn in Kansas to shoot a commercial, but with very limiting specs — weathered, preferably red, wood-shingled roof, gaps in the sides for the obligatory shafts of dusty sunlight, surrounding field of waving wheat — we decided to go one better and solicit photos of great barns in Kansas and Missouri, any color, any condition, any location.

Coke hasn’t announced its winner yet, but we have ours.

We looked at about 100 entries (see them all at Mingle.KansasCity.com, in the “Home & Garden” section) from as close as eastern Jackson County to as far away as Stockton, Kan. (north of Hays) and Patton, Mo. (south of St. Louis). Big barns, tiny barns, pristine restored barns, barely there ghosts of barns.

In a Hollywood twist, the barn that won us over with its looks turned out to have a heartwarming history as well.

And so, with apologies to John Mellencamp, here’s a little story ’bout Jack and Diane, and a great American barn they fixed in the Heartland.

That’s right. Our winner, a beautifully restored, sage-green 1935 dairy barn in Raymore in Cass County, belongs to Jack and Diane Aaron. Until last November, the Aarons lived in a tiny house across the street from a bar in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan.

The couple, in their mid-60s, traded in city life for country life when they inherited the barn from its previous owner, an 86-year-old widower and longtime friend the couple had been helping for more than a decade so he could stay on the farm he loved after his wife died.

The previous owner, the Aarons’ friend Don Hutchinson, has a neat story, too. Hutchinson owned a real estate company in Kansas City and used profits from his business to finance his passion — archaeological digs in Israel — and to support local hospitals and animal shelters.

And the original owners, the family that started Beltz & Sons Dairy, poured bushels of Midwestern toil and resourcefulness into raising the barn. They pieced together different sizes and colors of mostly salvaged lumber so meticulously that the frame and interior are straight and sound 80 years later.

A 43-year friendship

Diane Aaron met Don Hutchinson through a family friend 43 years ago. For 22 years, the Aarons met Hutchinson for breakfast weekly at the former Nichols Lunch, until the landmark midtown diner closed in 2007. Hutchinson loved to talk about his world travels. In addition to his beloved archaeological digs in Israel, he had explored Africa, Asia and Turkey.

In 1992, Hutchinson told the Aarons he was moving from Overland Park to a farm in Raymore. Hutchinson was a country gentleman, not a farmer. He wanted to live on land that had its own water supply. The former Beltz Dairy property has a pond and three springs.

Life got difficult when Hutchinson’s wife moved toa nursing home in 2004. Over breakfast one day, after his wife had died, Hutchinson told the Aarons his wife had “stuff” that needed donating. It turned out she was something of a hoarder.

“That was the beginning of an overwhelming project,” Diane said. The Aarons, both retired from railroad jobs, started spending large chunks of their free time at Hutchinson’s farm.

While Diane sorted through the contents piled high in every room of the 5,000-square-foot house, Jack took over mowing and tree work on the surrounding 40 acres, to save Hutchinson the cost of hiring people to do it. Besides, Jack was getting hooked on spending time on the farm, with its swaying tall grasses, singing meadowlarks and sweet-smelling air. One hot summer when the springs ran dry, Jack and Diane brought in a trencher and installed pipes and a pump so Hutchinson could get water from the pond.

As Jack continued to work around the farm, he continued eyeing the barn, weathered gray with gaping holes in the front where siding boards had fallen off because urine from nesting raccoons had rusted through the nails.

Trading city life for country living

As Jack and Diane’s visits settled into a pattern of regular work days, and Hutchinson realized how much Jack was enjoying himself, he offered to give the couple the farm when he died. Jack told him no, because he knew Diane wouldn’t want to move so far from the young grandson she frequently babysat.

Four years later, in 2008, Hutchinson, who had no children, asked again. He told Jack he would donate the house to a hospital if Jack wouldn’t take it.

“I told him, if that was the case, I would be happy to live out my days here,” Jack said. In return, the Aarons promised Hutchinson that if he ever required around-the-clock care, they would move in with him so he could live out his days on the farm.

Three years ago, dementia caused Hutchinson to lean on the Aarons even more. Diane did all his cooking and cleaning, and Jack increased his visits from twice a week to daily. But a fall in early summer of 2013 sent Hutchinson to the hospital and then to nursing care for rehab. As the Aarons were readying the house for his return, Hutchinson died on Thanksgiving Day.

The Aarons had moved to the farm two weeks earlier, because they were taking turns staying with Hutchinson day and night at his nursing home a few miles away.

Like Hutchinson, the Aarons are not farmers. They are more interested in planting old-fashioned trees and flowers than vegetables. But even that takes a back seat to the work of keeping the fence lines clear and fighting brush and weeds.

The couple were a little nervous about taking on so much physical labor because they both suffered serious back injuries when they were younger, but Diane says they both feel much healthier now.

Jack says there is 10 times the work living on the farm, but also 10 times the joy. “My favorite part of living here is looking out the windows or sitting on the porch and not seeing houses, just pastures, trees and the barn.”

Jack was friendly with his neighbors in Strawberry Hill, but his true friends were railroad buddies who quit coming around after they retired. Now, his closest pals are neighbors of a mix of ages, all younger than him — 30, 48 and 53 — but as tight as a pack of teenagers.

“We all help each other and never question any amount of work that needs doing,” he says. His friends often stop by after work for “roundtable discussions” over beers at the kitchen table in cold weather or on lawn chairs under the big pin oak by the barn when it’s warm.

The Aarons, like Hutchinson, hope to remain at the farm the rest of their lives. Diane’s two children will inherit the property. “There is plenty of room to build a second house if they both want to live there,” Diane said.

The grandkids are already hooked. When they visit, they love going to the pond and riding the ATV, golf cart, lawn mowers and tractor. “Everyone grabs something to drive,” Jack said. This summer, the couple looks forward to christening a new pedal boat on the pond.

Restoring the barn

Jack began restoring the barn four years ago, shortly after agreeing to take over the farm. Although he has no practical use for it, he longed to bring it back to life, in part because of memories of a red barn on his grandfather’s Blue Springs farm when he was a kid. “It was small but it seemed huge when I was a kid,” he said.

His first task was eliminating the critters damaging it from the inside. Jack trapped skunks, raccoons and opossums, 39 in the first month.

Like many old barns, the former Beltz barn was full of metal, from machines to rusty nails to guttering — anything a farmer thought he might use in the next 50 years. A scrapper made three trips with a 16-foot trailer to haul the metal away.

When Diane broke her arm moving woodpiles and couldn’t climb the ladder to the hay loft, Jack built a staircase.

The barn has Dutch lap cedar siding, which has to be specially made, so Jack used pine car siding (originally used on boxcars) instead. Working alone and on a tall ladder, Jack removed boards, reinstalled or replaced them up to 45 feet in the air, the height of the barn.

When the siding work was complete, Jack replaced missing roof shingles, had new windows installed and hired a local company to paint the barn a soft sage green.

The barn quilt

By last summer, the barn was finished, and Diane wanted to make and install a barn quilt, a large wooden panel painted like a square of a quilt, as a finishing touch. Although Diane doesn’t quilt, she has an extensive collection of quilts made by her grandmother and other women in her family.

She didn’t want the popular state star patterns, but something with rounded lines instead of sharp angles. Her love of curves intersected with her interest in family history when she discovered a Civil War pattern named after the infamous General Order 11, which caused her great-great-grandparents to be displaced from their home in Tarsney in Jackson County. (The order, issued by the Union Army in 1863 after William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, required residents of rural areas in four Missouri counties bordering Kansas to move.) The pattern was published in The Kansas City Star in 1929.

Jack bought the boards and made an 8-by-8-foot square, and Diane painted the design, with help from a friend with a fine arts degree. The 150th anniversary of the issuing of General Order 11 was Aug. 25, and Diane asked Jack if he would organize a quilt-raising party that day as an early birthday present (her birthday is Aug. 30).

Jack enlisted eight men to help him load the quilt on a trailer, haul it to the front of the barn, hoist it up using a block-and-tackle pulley, hold it straight while standing on ladders and bolt it to the barn. They celebrated afterward with a cookout for 20 people.

“That was a monumental day for me and Jack,” Diane recalled.

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to choedel@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and The Star’s ChowTown blog.

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