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Ailing Farm Converts to Living Museum Where Kids Pet Pigs, Adults Dance in Loft

December 20, 1987|ROBERT LEE ZIMMER | Associated Press

MANHATTAN, Ill. — Frank Koren still tends animals in his rare round barn, but they are goats and kittens, not cattle. And cleaning the 19th-Century relic means disposing of crepe paper streamers, not manure.

When he had trouble making a profit raising livestock and grain, Koren converted the huge, four-level, 90-year-old barn into a museum and party hall, and his northern Illinois farmland into a place for picnics and retreats.

"It just kind of struck me one day," he said of the change. "I'm not real religious, but maybe somebody upstairs helped a little."

Ponies and Pet Pigs

Now children ride ponies and pet the pigs at the farmstead on 120 acres of rolling land, while adults ride hayracks and dance in the hayloft, rented out for private parties.

Families swim and fish in the pond. Couples are wed beneath an arch in the woods and then taken through the country in horse-drawn "carriages for marriages."

"But the barn is the big attraction," said Koren, 66, who has lived at the farm with his wife, Dolores, for 31 years.

Completed in 1898, the barn only appears round--it actually has 20 sides. It is 100 feet wide and 65 feet tall, with a cupola on top. Builders used 340 windowpanes and 77,803 board feet of lumber.

Koren estimates that it would cost nearly $1 million to replace.

Slipping as Farmer

The barn once held 25,000 bales of hay to feed as many as 800 head of cattle, but by 1986, "I could see myself slipping in farming," he said.

So the pile of cow manure was pushed outside and Koren built new stalls for small "petting" animals.

Whitewash was sandblasted off the ancient timbers that crisscrossed the inside. A new roof was installed and new paint applied to protect the structure.

"I love the idea of preserving a historic building like this--especially for the kids," Koren said. "These kids really keep you young."

As he walked through the first level of the barn, a silver pygmy goat named Francis bounded across the wood-block floor of a stall to join him. Soon he was leading a procession that included goats Jack and Jill and half a dozen kittens, ambling past the stalls that hold Taco the miniature donkey and Herbie the calf.

'All These Little Animals'

"It's all these little animals the kids love," said Koren, passing a cage of rabbits. "They run for the kitties and carry them around in their arms."

He also keeps eight ponies for the children to ride and six horses to pull carriages or sleighs, depending on the season.

Koren climbed the stairs to the loft, past a display of old-time horse collars and oxen yokes, and plucked a few pieces of colorful crepe paper from a beam over some tables and chairs.

Across the floor, he showed off a collection of antique household items, from a butter churn to a broom maker, from a cider press to a pedal sewing machine.

"I'll have 50 or 100 kids lined up here along the rope and I'll tell them how things used to be done," Koren said. "They really listen."

Has Collection of Buggies

On a concrete slab outside, once the cattle feedlot, is his collection of steam engines and fire trucks, carriages and sleds.

"I've always had buggies--just bought them as I saw them," he said. "Some people like old cars, but I love old buggies and horses."

Koren estimates 25,000 that people--from nearby cities like Chicago and Joliet and some East Coast states--have visited his museum this year. Admission is $2.

"I like meeting all these people, and when you're nice to them, it spreads by word-of-mouth," he said.

And there is another good thing about his 1 1/2-year-old venture: "There's nothing to it compared with all the work of raising cattle."

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