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Loftiest Barn in State of Montana : Restored Historical Structure Is a Top Tourist Draw

Charles Hillinger's America

October 05, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

SUN RIVER, Montana — The J. C. Adams Stone Barn is the only barn of its kind west of the Mississippi. It's also the best-known barn in Montana.

The gabled structure with Romanesque arched doors and windows has a life-size stallion weather vane atop its main tower. People driving by the 100-year-old barn, on seeing it for the first time, often stop to admire the architectural beauty and unusual construction of the sandstone block structure, which is 140 feet long and 40 feet wide.

That's what happened to Teresa and Michael Stuckslager shortly after they moved to Montana in 1973 from Winnetka, Ill. "We fell in love with the barn at first sight," Teresa Stuckslager recalled.

The barn was falling apart at the time. The front wall was leaning out as much as two feet from the rest of the building, roof towers had toppled and the ears and tail of the weather-vane horse had been blasted off by lightening. Windows were shattered. Most of the hand-sawed cedar shingles were missing from the roof.

"Our initial reaction was somebody better do something to save the barn before it's too late," she said.

The couple went on their way but could not get the old barn out of their minds. Both are history buffs. Michael Stuckslager, 44, a cartoonist and ad display layout man for the Chicago Tribune prior to moving to Montana, was so intrigued with the barn that he began researching its history. He was editor of two historic gun-collecting publications at the time. His wife had written commercials for TV and radio before moving to Montana.

Michael Stuckslager searched old newspapers and records at the Historical Society of Montana in Helena, tracking down the story of the J. C. Adams Stone Barn. He learned it took two Swedish stonecutters two years to construct the building for James C. Adams, a Kentuckian who moved to Montana in 1864. Adams paid $10,000 for the barn, which was completed in 1885 and is located 28 miles west of Great Falls.

Shortly after the barn was built, a story in the Sun River Press described the building as "the marvel of Montana. It looks as if the barn would stand the storms and decay of a century at least."

Adams had been a wagon boss and was in the freighting, stage coach and livestock business. He was depicted as the lead horseman in artist Charlie Russell's famous "Wagon Boss" painting.

On the main floor of the barn there were stalls for Adams' race horses, room for his wagons, coaches and buggies. The barn served as shelter for his livestock in winter. The second story, called the loft, was used to store hay and as a social gathering place for Adams' family and many friends.

Traced Descendants

In 1913 Adams died leaving his widow and nine children. The Adams family sold the barn, the family home and ranch in 1920.

To prepare a family genealogy, Teresa Stuckslager tracked down descendants of James C. Adams in Montana, Wyoming and California. Meanwhile, her husband wrote a history of Adams and his barn. Through his efforts the barn was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, making it eligible for a matching grant from the U.S. Department of Interior for preservation and restoration.

The barn's owner, Harold Poulson, agreed that it should be restored. A nonprofit organization was formed, the Dracut Junction Stone Barn Company, named after a town plotted by Adams but not developed. Poulson deeded the barn to Dracut and in return received a $79,000 tax write-off. The Stone Barn Company received a $79,000 federal grant in matching funds for the preservation project.

A new roof was installed, windows replaced, the hardwood floor in the loft reinforced. The front of the barn was realigned and strengthened, as were other walls. Some of the work was paid for with the grant money. Additional help was volunteered by farmers in the area and from people from Great Falls.

"The barn should withstand another 100 years of storms and decay," said Stuckslager, who operates a Great Falls antique gun shop with his wife.

The Stone Barn was rededicated in August, 1981. All the volunteers who worked on the restoration were there. So was Montana Gov. Ted Schwinden. The Adams family had a reunion, with Alma Adams Morgan, 101, the last surviving child of J. C. Adams, in attendance.

Since that time, the descendants of J. C. Adams have held a reunion in the Stone Barn every August. This year 46 showed up--the oldest, Daisy Genger, 85, a great niece from Fairfield, Mont., and the youngest, Jacob Tyler Jourdonnais, 2 months, a great-great-great-grandson from Kalispell, Mont.

Lucile Burns, 76, of San Bernardino, Calif., and her sister, Ethel Hayes, 74, of Mill Valley, Calif., both flew in for the get-together. They're granddaughters of the barn builder.

Employee Remembered

Part of their potluck dinner was eaten with chopsticks in memory of Wong Ching, who did the washing, cleaning and cooking for the family from 1884 to 1920. Every five years he would spend some of his earnings on a two-month visit to his wife and son in China. When he retired he returned to his homeland.

The barn is now open to the public one weekend a month and for group tours without charge the rest of the time. It is the only barn in Montana listed as a state attraction.

The Stuckslagers would like to see the barn used as a museum and community center, for meetings, parties, weddings and funerals. But that hasn't happened yet. One problem is that Montana has a short summer and a long winter--and there isn't any heat in the barn.

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