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Hartley, Iowa, couple rehabs dilapidated dairy

The exterior of the barn where Jack and Linda Hardin live. The barn, located northeast of Hartley, was set to be razed before the Hardins purchased it. (Laura Grevas/Daily Globe)1 / 4
SUBMITTED PHOTO When the Hardins looked at an acreage near Hartley, in hopes of building a berm home, they were immediately inspired by this barn. Instead of building their home, they converted the barn into their retirement retreat.2 / 4
The Hardins' bedroom. Hanging on the wall is one of the many family-made quilts displayed throughout their home. (Laura Grevas/Daily Globe)3 / 4
A view from the loft overlooking the main living room. In the background is a chandelier hung from a track originally used for hauling hay. (LAURA GREVAS/DAILY GLOBE)4 / 4

HARTLEY, Iowa -- Jack and Linda Hardin's original plan was to downsize.

"Somewhere along the way, the plan went wrong," said Linda.

But as the couple sits at the kitchen table in their barn home, sunlight streaming through the large window that formerly served as a hay mow door, they say they wouldn't change a thing.

"We're just delighted to be here," Linda said.

And it's obvious, too, in the animated way she shows guests around the home and the way Jack recalls stories from the start of his "retirement."

"We did it all," he said. "I don't think I took off a day for a year and a half."

All they wanted, at first, was to build a berm home. Prices were high where they lived, so Jack began looking in northwest Iowa -- without much luck, at first.

"It seemed like every time I'd found something it had sold two days before. So I just moved the camper up here and stayed up here," he recalled.

When a local realtor first showed him the plot of land northeast of Hartley -- a chicken coop, farmhouse and dilapidated barn -- Jack was less than impressed.

"(The land) was so flat, I said, 'I don't think we're going to be interested in it,'" he said.

He asked Linda to check out the property just in case.

"I saw the old barn and thought 'Oh, man, what are we going to do with this?'" she said.

But the couple decided the farmhouse would be an acceptable dwelling while they were building the berm house they wanted, and reluctantly set out to survey the barn.

"I said, 'OK, let's look at the barn to see what we have to deal with,"' Linda said. "And we went in and it was just like flashbulbs going off. And I said, 'This is it. No berm home, we're doing this.'"

The couple's offer on the property was accepted, and they sold their home in Indianola.

The money from the sale would serve as their budget from November 2006 to March 2008 as they rehabbed the barn and restored the farmhouse, passing through many salvage yards along the way.

"We tell everyone it was design on a dime with nine cents change," said Linda. "We went to auctions, salvaged everything ... lights, lumber, just anything, we found a place for it."

Her son Brian Curnes, a contractor in Ankeny, Iowa, was able to use his contractor's discount for some items; others they purchased from Habitat for Humanity's stash of leftovers. Jack did the woodworking himself, Linda laid the blueprints and son David, who now lives in the farm house, provided the "muscle."

The couple's efforts raised a few eyebrows. The former owners of the land, who had planned to raze the barn, were skeptical, as was son Jeff, a doctor.

"He said 'Mother, you know, it only takes two signatures to commit you. I'm one and I've got friends,'" recalled Linda with a laugh. "They thought we were crazy. They came up and they saw the peace, the quiet and how nicely it was coming along and said, 'We see why you did it.'"

Now, Linda said Jeff and his friends, who stay with the Hardins when they go pheasant hunting, must admit the barn is an improvement from their usual accommodations.

"They're used to staying in hotels that would take dogs, living out of their cars," she said.

Jack and Linda's efforts to singlehandedly design and build a home inside of a barn also attracted a parade of curious neighbors.

"Our nightly entertainment was watching the chickens (they still keep chickens in a chicken house on the property) and watching the cars go by. Because people would just go by and they'd go real slow and you could just tell they were looking."

In September of last year, the Hardins appeased local curiosity by hosting an open house. Nearly 200 people attended the barely publicized event, and Linda said they have continued to host curious visitors from all over the country, who bring with them stories of the farm's past.

One girl from Colorado, whose parents farmed the land in the 1940s, just had to see for herself what had happened to the former dairy barn.

"She said her mother was just so delighted, just thrilled to death someone had fixed it up and was taking care of it," remembered Linda. "We were really tickled."

The Hardins say they'd like to do a bit of research on their home' history, having heard it was a stagecoach stop decades ago.

There are also a few unfinished projects in the large barn -- the Hardins hope to install a bathroom in the basement and a deck outside of their bedroom -- but for now the couple rests easy, proud to have chased their "crazy" dream and enjoying the bit of local notoriety that comes with it.

"We say 'Yeah, I live in the red barn east of town,'" Linda said "And (people will) say "Oh, I know who you are."