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Saving history: Barn Doctors straighten, salvage and make old barns look as good as new

SLAYTON -- For Aaron Barritt, fixing up barns isn't just a job, it's a way of life.

"I've been doing it ever since I was 12 years old, and I'm 45 now," he said. "I took it over for my mom and dad."

The business was originally called Barritt & Sons Construction, based in Fulda.

"Basically, years ago, the insurance adjuster in Fulda asked if they could straighten a barn, and that's how it got started," Barritt explained.

In more recent history, the business name was changed to Barn Doctors to reflect the business' specialty.

"The John Deere referral magazine did an article on it some years ago and called us the barn doctors," Barritt said. "That's when I renamed it that."

As the Barn Doctors, Barritt and his crew travel a five-state area in their quest to revitalize farm buildings with their special brand of structural surgery. A job generally begins with a consultation.

"We go and look at 'em and check them all over, see what they want done, then suggest what should be done and go from there," he said. "... It's not a lot different than working on a house."

Each job is different, and Barritt never knows what he's going to find. One job might involve simply jacking up a structure and putting a new foundation under it, while the next one entails rebuilding the entire barn almost from the ground up.

Occasionally, they have to tell the owner that the building isn't worth saving..

"I did one in South Dakota a few years ago, the only thing holding it up was one cable," Barritt recalled. "I was scared to go inside it. In some cases, it's cheaper to build new."

But money isn't always a consideration for barn owners. If a structure has sentimental value, people are willing to pay the price to have it restored.

"We get a lot of them where their dad built the barn, and they're going to keep it no matter the cost," Barritt said.

As far as he is aware, the oldest structure the Barn Doctors have worked on is an 1850 barn in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

"Some of them, they can go back on their deeds and stuff, but a lot of them they can't figure out how old they are," Barritt explained. "Then you get these guys who are 85 and 90 years old, who can tell you exactly when it was built."

Barn Doctors was also involved in restoring two barns that were honored recently by the Friends of Minnesota Barns: One, owned by Gary and Marjory Becker of Marshall, was a runner-up in the Barn of the Year competition; while the barn owned by David and Marlyce Logan of rural Pipestone received the competition's top honor.

Another interesting job involved taking apart a barn, piece by piece, numbering each piece, and then rebuilding it at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. Barritt is especially appreciative of working on barns in Iowa, where there is a concerted effort and grant money for barn restoration.

"They have the barn foundation down there, so the state pays for half of it, so we probably get more of them in Iowa than in Minnesota," he said.

Barn design is very regional, Barritt noted.

"You'll get in one area, and they may have rounded roof barns, and you'll get 15 miles away and it's all hip roof barns," he described.

In southwest Minnesota, where the wind and weather take their toll, one of the most common fixes is straightening a barn. Although many such jobs are seasonal, Barritt keeps busy all year round, maybe taking a couple of weeks off during the December holidays.

"I run two crews," he detailed. "I've got a guy who's worked for me for 19 years now who runs the other one. He does more of the concrete work. Another guy has been with me for 14 years, another for about eight years. It probably takes four to five (workers) on a project. We do a lot of just twoday jobs, go in and fix rafters in a machine shed or something like that. ... I try to keep one crew going all winter. We just took a lot of snow off roofs."

Weather definitely plays a role in how busy the Barn Doctors are at any given time.

"Fifteen years ago, when Grand Forks flooded, that was the biggest year we ever had; we had 15 buildings propped up at one time," Barritt recalled.

"We like tornadoes, snowstorms," he added with a laugh. "The only thing we don't care for is the rain in the spring, because we can't get anything done."

For more information about Barn Doctors, phone Barritt at (507) 425-2879.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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