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A Diamond in the Rough

Briggs, Stefanie. "A Diamond in the Rough." Dickinson Press, 22 July 2007.


The Hutmacher Complex northwest of Manning is a farmstead built in the late 1920s in the Russian-Ukraine stone slab method. It is now being restored by efforts through Preservation North Dakota and the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
MANNING -- For sisters Eleanor and Emma Urlacher the sandstone slabs, clay mortar, chopped straw, cardboard and other materials which surrounds them years later still feel like home.

Looking around this past Tuesday inside their childhood stomping grounds, the Hutmacher farm, the sisters saw what was left and remember some of it looking bigger.

"Some things I remember differently, but this was always home," Eleanor said. "We always hoped to keep the place around for as long as it could get fixed up. Growing up, we worked on the house with our parents in the summer putting up new plaster and straw."

The Hutmacher sisters, married to first cousins Frank and John Urlacher, came to visit their familys farmstead. Although most of the complex is still standing, it has been beaten and weathered by time and the North Dakota prairie. The deterioration has only spurred new efforts by volunteers to restore this historical diamond in the rough.

Dale Bentley of Preservation North Dakota first saw the Hutmacher complex in 2002 and was floored by the discovery. PND is the states private, non-profit, grassroots coalition for historic preservation.

"I was flabbergasted when I got to this site," Bentley said. "We haven't been able to identify a farm site that is this intact and this style of architecture anywhere in the nation. Its significance is absolutely incredible."

The buildings are made with a stone slab method that was brought over from the Black Sea region of Russia and Ukraine to North Dakota by Frank Hutmachers family. They put the method to use when building a home for his family with wife Veronica (Nuss) Hutmacher.

The principle building of the farm complex is the house, but the ruins of a barn, summer kitchen, butchering house, poultry barn, garage and stable are still visible.

Rooms were aligned along a single east-west axis with protruding entry vestibules. Materials used for the buildings included Badlands cedar rafters, cottonwood ridge beam supports with a roof of small branches and straw sealed with clay. Ashlar sandstone slabs and clay mortar covered with plaster made of clay and chopped straw form the exterior walls.

Later roofing repairs used cardboard, but because nailing into the ceiling was tricky, old jar tops were attached to keep things in place. The jar tops are scattered around the complex covered in rust and debris, but many continue to be nailed to some of the rugged wood beams. The site was in many ways ahead of its time, in terms of conservation, green-architecture and eco-friendly construction techniques.

One can still walk around the house today and see chipped paint on the walls that reflect the different trends during past decades. Green specks and pink scrapings still hang in loose chunks, while in the kitchen old curtains tattered and torn wave in the wind.

The floorboards creak like any old house does, but at the Hutmacher's some also are broken or almost totally unusable. The ceiling and roof have fissures open to the bright blue sky and have let in the weather during the past decades, wearing down the interior.

A unique place

For Frank and Veronica Hutmacher and their six children it was a simple home. Veronica died in 1969, while Frank died in 1973 before major efforts began to form to save their place. Two of the Hutmacher children are deceased, while four others still live in the southwestern region of the state. The Hutmachers used the principle residence from 1928-1963.

Emma and Eleanor live in Dickinson, their sister Catherine lives in Richardton and the youngest, Alex, also lives in Dickinson. Alex was the last owner of the family farm, which he sold to the Steve Burian family in 1980.

Burian donated and deeded it to the Dunn County Historical Society in an effort to see it restored and maintained. Unfortunately, the elderly group at the time was unable to do any work on the farm and deeded the land back to the Burians.

Burian's son Arnold of Bismarck recently was able to deed the land to the PND for the new restoration effort.

"In 1928, when you consider how other folks were living with running water, flushed toilets, automobiles and telephones, compared to what this family had and then having the last person live there until 1979, just makes it a one-of-a-kind place," Bentley said.

Eleanor and Emma have clear memories of their time on the small farmstead. Being there Tuesday recreated images of the family huddled together sleeping in one room between the kitchen and living area. A dent in the wall can still be seen where the table in the kitchen once stood for meals.

The two sisters also remember having different gardens, cows, pigs and chickens around to feed the family and bringing friends over from nearby farms.

"Friends would say they liked our place better than their own," Eleanor said. "But we didnt know any better. It was always our home."

The sisters remember three rooms being built onto the complex during their time there. Eleanor also remembers the front entry being added after she was married in 1953.

Laborious work

As of Tuesday, a team of volunteers from across the state and country have worked on three of the five rooms in the house. This includes shoveling as much as 3 feet of earth out of the rooms and uncovered the floor to be able to walk across it.

"We're hauling debris away like rotten lumber and junk which goes into landfills," Bentley said Tuesday. "We've reconstructed the clothesline which had been lying on the ground with rotted clothes and reinstalled original materials and dug out doors so they swing again."

The group also will catalog the artifacts left in the buildings. State Historical Society of North Dakota staff will document whats left in the structure and update the files with the current structural assessment, he added.

"That information will be forwarded onto the National Park Service when they are done, and with that a review of some old photographs will be done," Bentley said. "We also had the grass mowed and brought in an electrical line to provide facilities for our volunteers. Basically, we are here to clean up the site and get ready for the stabilization and restoration the house needs."

The work is to happen in stages, he added. At least two more sessions are slated for early and late August with a full summer of sessions taking place next year.

"We're hoping to get most of the straw and clay off of the roof and leave the rafters and ridgepoles in place," Bentley said of this year's work. "We may tarp it this winter, but the roof will be replaced next summer."

Finding support

The new restoration efforts emerged through work by the PND and the Historical Society. This renewed hope for the Hutmacher sisters.

During the years, there have been several efforts to rebuild or restore the farm, but they all fell short due to funding and the women wanted to see it to believe it was really happening.

The Hutmacher complex was first listed as one of the PNDs three most endangered places in the state in 2000, after which Bentley pushed for it to be listed again in 2002.

"We list three properties annually. Weve started referring to it as our opportunity list because the properties are of great significance and need to be saved," Bentley said. "We are listing them in a positive way and are not saying we are going to lose the place, but we need to save it."

The farmstead also is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bentley found he was not alone in seeing what a treasure the Hutmacher Complex is. After showing other organizations more information to obtain support for the project, the preservationist group Heritage Conservation Network of Boulder, Colo., joined in on the restoration.

The HCN participates in unique ethnic and historic projects around the world by bringing people to the sites, Bentley said.

"It's similar to volun-tourism by bringing volunteers in who pay to fly over, stay in a region, eat in a region and work on projects like this," Bentley said. "They get to go out and experience all the local sites and culture, which is how we hope to continue this project."

"Initial funding of $98,000 for the restoration project comes from a Save America's Treasures grant administered by the NPS," he added.

"You think thats a lot of money, but when you start figuring in a 1,000-mile round trip for me from the other office and add in consultant fees it goes away pretty quickly," Bentley said. "Also, we have to match what we can use with donated materials, volunteer labor and cash."

"Everyone who works on the site is documenting their time, mileage, lodging expenses, etc.," he added.

"Not only are they contributing to the buildings, but they are also contributing to our match then," Bentley said. "One of the ways to generate some match is by the volunteers here. All of this work is done by unskilled people. It is hard labor shoveling earth, throwing around clay, harvesting trees and all that. We are trying to utilize local materials while the material costs are almost non-existence. Its the people and labor force who do the work."

Bentley said the PND still needs to find additional funding to continue the restoration which includes the house and stabilizing the other structures.

Volunteers work on cleaning up debris around the Hutmacher Complex northwest of Manning, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. People are
coming from across the nation and state to help out with the restoration project.
Eleanor Hutmacher points out where the kitchen table stood in the building being restored.
A rusted jar lid now sits as part of the debris on the Hutmacher Complex
northwest of Manning.


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