Historic ND homestead in need of repairs

Grandstrand, Katherine. "Historic ND homestead in need of repairs." Forum, 1 August 2013.

KILLDEER, N.D. – Frank and Veronica Hutmacher had no plans on making history when they married and built a farmstead southwest of here 85 years ago.

Frank was a young German from Russia just getting established on the prairies of western North Dakota who utilized building techniques learned in the old country to build not only a house but all the buildings in his yard.

In 2013, the yard, across the road from Frank’s parents’ farm, is still there and three buildings – the house, the garage and the granary – still stand. Early July storms that ripped through Dunn County damaged the roofs of the garage and the house, or so suspects Suzzanne Kelly, who visits the site every few months from Fargo in an effort to restore and rebuild it.

“They are rock and mortar structures, and the mortar is made from clay that is harvested from the site,” Kelley said.

The roofs are built with a ridgepole and rafters supporting brush, flax and mud layers. The family put a layer of sod above the mud.

The farm was occupied from 1928 until 1979, when Alex Hutmacher, Frank and Veronica’s youngest child and only son, got married and moved to Dickinson. In 1980, the farm was bought by Steve Burian, of Manning, and donated to the Dunn County Historical Society.

Over the years different groups provided upkeep until 2006 when Preservation North Dakota accepted ownership of the farmstead, group President Susan Quinnell said.

“In the late 1990s, a local group had been involved with it and had some roof failures – they tried a technique for that mud roof that just didn’t work,” Quinnell said. Since then volunteers have come together for two- to five-day workshops to provide the repairs needed, Quinnell said.

Students from North Dakota State University can come out to rural Killdeer as part of a service learning project for a Great Plains history course taught by Thomas Isern if they so choose, but anyone can be a volunteer, Kelley said.

A volunteer group visited the site last month to assess the damage, which included several cracks in key roof supports in the house and garage and a completely collapsed roof in the center section of the house, Kelley said.

“We were out there in April and everything was fine, everything was pristine,” Kelley said.

The majority of the restoration took place shortly after Preservation North Dakota took over the property, but the recent damage has turned an upkeep mission into a rebuild on buildings they thought they were done with, she said.

“As long as you occupy the house, it’s very livable,” Kelley said. “If there’s any damage that starts happening because of weather to the roof, there’s someone there who can fix it.”

Ideally, the site would become a living historic place where volunteers would stay from time to time, sharing with visitors the importance of the people who lived there and the challenges they faced, Kelley said.

“Where perhaps students who are working on a public history degree or are interested in museum studies might actually take up some residence during the summer out there at the site and operate it for people who come through,” Kelley said. “And then they can talk about how the family lived in the times and maybe even dress in period clothing and be there to interpret and share the history of the place.”

While many pioneers lived in houses built from the earth, most long-standing farmsteads were eventually serviced by stick-built structures, Kelley said.

“The Hutmachers were very frugal,” Kelley said. “They chose to live in it longer than most people did. They also chose to keep it with no running water, where other people might have.”

What makes the Hutmachers more unique is that all of their buildings, save the outhouse, were built in the same fashion, Kelley said.

Alex isn’t sure the preservation group is using the same technique to re-create the roof on his old home that his parents used.

“The stuff that they used, it hardened up like concrete,” Alex said. “I think that it was too heavy for it and not enough support inside.”

The house was sturdy and comfortable to live in while growing up, Alex said.

“It was enjoyable in there,” Alex said. “It was warm in winter and cool in summer because the walls are two feet wide.”

Alex attended a country school during his early elementary days and finished grade school in Killdeer.

Three of his four sisters, Emma and Eleanor Urlacher, who married cousins Frank and John, and Catherine Kostelecky, still live in southwest North Dakota as well. The oldest, Rosemary Hutmacher, never married and died of cancer in 1996.

“All of my neighbors, most of them have passed away, too, already,” Alex said of people living near the old farmstead.

The Preservation North Dakota group gets to the site about three times a year, Kelley said. The upkeep isn’t as daunting for someone living in these houses, as they can address maintenance issues as they come up.

The Hutmachers never had running water on the farm, instead walking a fourth of a mile to Frank’s parents’ farm for drinking water each day, Kelley said. They did have electricity and a phone line put in in the 1960s.

The Hutmacher farm is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a “Save America’s Treasures” project.

To visit, drive approximately 6 miles west of Killdeer on Highway 200 and turn south on 115th Avenue Southwest another 6 miles. There are signs denoting the route along 115th Avenue.

To volunteer, contact Kelley at (701) 799-3064 or kelley@kindredhouse.net.

“There is no completion,” Kelley said. “It’s a dirt house and so it will always be in need of perpetual care. Even though we thought we were pretty much done with the house roof and all the things going on with that and that we could move on and work on the chicken house or whatever, you always have to keep going back to it.”

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