Rebuilding history

Written by Kathy Weiss

Photos by Reggie Morrow

If you Google the “barn guy on Sugar Bottom Road,” your search will invariably lead to Dick Schwab’s barns.

Barn building has become an obsession for the 56-year-old retired executive and community philanthropist whose unique round structures dot the 92 acres of land he owns near Solon in rural Johnson County.

While barns are disappearing from the rural landscape, Dick is doing his part to replenish the iconic symbol of Americana.

Since 1983, he has built six round and three rectangular barns, along with two covered bridges, a gazebo, a privy and an amazing stone arch at the site of a majestic new celebration barn that’s now underway.

These aren’t just ordinary barns. “They are objects of wonder and beauty,” says Dick, who often builds with materials reclaimed from other barns. “The old barns and their legacy live on in some small way in these new creations,” he adds. “We bring honor to those hardworking craftsmen who go before us.”

The painstaking process of constructing a round barn is a perfectionist’s dream — or nightmare, depending on your perspective. Dick acknowledges that he has dismantled a barn and started over because he didn’t like the way it looked.

“There’s no master plan” to his vocation, he admits. “It’s a lot about Schwab’s rule of stuff: You have 10 percent more stuff than you have space to store it. A solution is to build a barn.”

Hence, Dick has a barn for his collection of vintage cars, one for trucks and another for tractors and construction equipment. A fourth barn is stacked to the rafters with lumber, most of it from Urban Forestry.

Dick explains: “When a tree falls, the organization can either haul it to a landfill or haul it to me and they’ll get a big ‘thank you.’” He uses some of the wood to build furniture, such as his hand-crafted red elm benches and walnut cabinets, which he donates to various charities, or it may be used to create religious wood products through his company, Touched by the Light.

When his “party” barn was struck by lightning and destroyed in a fire last year, Dick started planning a bigger and better replacement. The stone- and wood-sided round “celebration barn” will seat up to 450 people when completed next May. Eight weddings already are booked for 2009, he said.

Constructed with pieces from the old barn, the grander, new structure sits in front of an outdoor amphitheater designed for outdoor weddings, concerts and events. For the gathering space, reclaimed brick forms an intricate labyrinth based on a 14th century French pattern, which lies in the shadow of the huge stone arch. An idyllic pond and mature forest provide a backdrop of nature as far as the eye can see. Salvaged pavers from a defunct International Harvester factory and the old Lincoln Highway were used to create the walkways.

The towering arch is an engineering masterpiece that likely will become a local landmark. Dick flips through an album to locate photos that detail how they built a complex infrastructure of “cribbing” to support its construction — without using mortar. The individually cut stones are held together by steel pegs. “The keystone is placed in the center, which supports the arch and then you can remove the cribbing,” he explained. One Thursday morning early in the summer, the site of the new celebration barn was swarming with workers, many of them volunteers. Dick’s retired friend, Jack Neuzil, was on the scene, along with Ryan Krafka, an engineering student at Iowa State University who worked on the labyrinth; August Hadenfeldt, a sophomore at the University of Northern Iowa; and Solon High School graduate Michael Sedlacek, who helped build the original party barn that burned down.

Shooting nails into boards to make support beams, Jerry Mennenga, a retired industrial arts teacher at Northwest Junior High in Coralville, said he’s devoting a day or two a week. “I heard about the fire and thought it was so tragic,” he said. “I thought this would be a good way to get involved. It’s such a fascinating project.”

Another retiree considers his time there as payback. “Dick did me a favor by cutting up some logs for me,” said John Gross, a retired owner of Technigraphics in Iowa City, who applied glue to boards before they were nailed together. “Instead of giving him half the lumber, which is his usual fee, I thought I’d help out. Dick can just tell me when I’m paid up.”

The men seemed to enjoy the relaxed pace and camaraderie in the clear open air, quiet but for the sounds of whirring sanders and bullet-like nail guns. Each worker gets to sign his name on a cedar bench that will be placed in the completed barn.

Eight miles of 1-by-6-inch boards and two big barrels of glue go into making the 24 support beams that are joined at the ceiling by a center ring. “It will look like a big umbrella,” remarked Jack, who has been involved in Schwab barns from the start. “We’re trying to keep track of it this time,” he said, calculating that each support beam requires about 2,000 nails.

Recalling the awful fire on July 19, 2007, that devastated the first party barn, Jack wiped his eyes as he told how Solon fire officials were in North Liberty that night and saw a glow in the distance but didn’t know how to get there. Within an hour, it was gone.

Dick agreed that losing the barn was devastating, but smiled as he asserts, “It’s not tragic — it’s an act of nature. Since the barn burned down, I’ve had six or seven good friends die — that’s tragic,” he said. “Now I get to have fun with my friends building a barn.”