You can bet the farm on housebarns

NEUBERGTHAL — It turns out some people weren't slipping into the barns just to check on the livestock after all, a century ago in this heritage village.

Neubergthal, renowned for its Mennonite house barns, once had a liquor problem. Not only was alcohol the ruin of several farms, but at least three families operated stills in a village of 40 housebarns. Part of one of those stills is a museum piece here.

Owners of the stills, situated so close to the international border, supplied rum runners who smuggled the booze into the United States.

That's just a side story to the main event here Saturday, the first ever open house of this village's historic housebarns. Neubergthal, about 100 kilometres south of Winnipeg, is a federally designated heritage village.

The houses are labours of love for owners, blending the old with the new.

Ray and Marilyn Hamm's housebarn was built in 1891 and has been in the family almost continuously for four generations. Like all the housebarns, it features a brick oven in its centre, which a Nebraska associate termed "a Mennonite grass burner." The oven was used for cooking but it also abuts the four rooms on the main floor, acting like a heat stove for each room. There are also vents above the bake oven that carry the rising heat — and smell of freshly baked bread and zweibach — to rooms on the second floor.

Another feature of housebarns is a sort of false wall. They typically have a wall that can be disassembled for gatherings such as weddings or funerals. Hamm's place also has a root cellar, entered via a trap door and steep, wooden stairs. The Hamms keep preserves such as pickles, sliced beets, carrots and tomato sauce in the cellar.

Another feature of housebarns is a china cabinet built into the wall. At the Hamm residence, the china cabinet is embedded in an interior wall of 12-inch mud-straw bricks. For insulation, the walls are filled with flax chaff. Both the barns and houses tend to have doors across from each other so breezes can sail through. A common feature in the housebarns are Dutch doors, extra-wide doors that are split horizontally so the top can be opened independently.

The barn portions of the heritage homes are solidly built. The oak came from the Pembina River across the border. The Hamm barn has massive 10-inch by 10-inch beams that are virtually like petrified wood today. Hamm's father, Bernard J., had a standing offer for visitors. He'd give anyone a dollar that could drive a nail into that beam. He paid out only one dollar in his lifetime. The beam is littered with the bent-over nails from the failed attempts.

His parents had livestock. "I grew up doing chores in this barn," he said. At least one of the housebarns still keeps livestock — that of Terry and Monique Mierau, the farming European opera singers profiled in the Free Press last autumn. For other families, the housebarn is like having a mammoth attached garage, an enviable feature today when more and more homes are being built with double and triple garages. A new subdivision just across the border in Minot, N.D., has homes with up to four garages and some with three double garages each.

The housebarns provided more room to store your toys, said Hamm. "When you have room, you have stuff. And when you have an open house, you have to clean up," he said.

Unlike the Open Doors Winnipeg program this weekend run by Heritage Winnipeg, the Neubergthal open house is a fundraiser and has an admission charge. Food will be served, including soup, freshly baked bread in the bake ovens and pie. There will be donkey cart rides for children. It's $30 each for adults, $15 for children 6 to 12 and $75 for a family.

The money will help turn a vacant housebarn into a 200-seat lecture hall, teaching kitchen, resource library, office space and study rooms. The building is already being operated to teach renewable resources in conjunction with Manitoba universities.

The National Historic Site relies on grants and fundraising to fulfil its mandate as a hands-on educational tool, explained board member Margruite Krahn. She's in the midst of restoring the village's former Herdsman House, which also will be on display at the open house.

Housebarn tours are from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Six of the village's eight existing housebarns will be open.