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Wanted: $500,000 to preserve farm history

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Before a burgeoning insurance, manufacturing and healthcare business community, before the arrival of an international headquarters for Anytime Fitness, and before shopping malls and CityPlace, the largest employer in Woodbury was the land.

Prior to suburban living, there was woods and wetlands in Woodbury and farmers cleared the woods for cropland and grazing.

Woodbury Heritage Society is seeking support for preservation of one of Woodbury's endangered species: the dairy farm. The Miller Barn, locate near but not visible from the intersection of Settlers Ridge Parkway and Valley Creek Road, is a symbol of the important role dairy farming played in Woodbury's history. Local historians are looking to fundraise $60,000 for siding and roofing the barn so that the structure stops deteriorating while they create a new use for the historic structure.

A three-year fundraising campaign hopefully will bring the total raised to $500,000, proponents of the preservation project said. Grand plans include a visitor center, a demonstration field, and amphitheater for historic presentations.

"There's a story to be told here, and it's rich. You don't find barns like this in Woodbury. If this building gets lost, a lot of our history is lost," said Joyce Flynn, who moved to town three years ago and became a member of the Woodbury Heritage Society.

The barn was constructed in 1921-22 on land deed by the U.S. to Ebenezer Childs on April 15, 1853.

It served August Miller, who built it, until his death in 1965.

Miller operated a dairy farm, local historians Dick Bielenberg and Wayne Schilling said. Miller had owned the farm since May 1, 1912.

The barn bore witness to the sale of the first row-crop tractor purchased in Woodbury in 1928, and the application of commercial fertilizer about the same time. The structure stored hay and housed cattle. It lived through the Great Depression, as well as the initiation of the Washington County Soil Conservation District's conservation practices, such as tree planting, contouring, and crop rotation.

A silo foundation is overgrown by foliage at the north end of the barn, indicative of corn having been grown and stored on the premises. The barn is close enough to Deephaven Drive to have overseen the housing growth that comes with prosperity but threatens farm history.

While urban development threatened farms in the 1960s, Barbara and Ralph Jankovich purchased the farm from Lehart Friedrich in April 1967, according to the Woodbury Heritage Society. A prosperous dairy community soon had few dairy farms remaining. By the 1970s, cash farming—with land owned by speculators and retired farmers rented to farmers—was the trend. The Jankovichs were an exception in Woodbury.

They kept horses in the barn, their daughter Kelli was married on the farm, and the Jankovichs held onto the farm until 1996, Bielenberg said.

In 1999, the city of Woodbury purchased 28 acres that included the barn, and the nearby farmhouse was removed. The vision for the barn was always preservation, despite the city's plans for passive development of a community park with a mixture of oak woodland, coniferous tree plantation, and previously farmed agricultural fields, said Mike Adams, assistant director of Woodbury Parks and Recreation.

In 2001 an additional 30 acres was purchased for Valley Creek Park. Also, the developer of the Dancing Waters neighborhood dedicated land to the park, Adams said.

Over the years, the barn has somewhat deteriorated but still begged the question of whether it could continue to be viewed as an interpretive site.

Woodbury Heritage Society members have been pondering the preservation of the barn for a half-dozen years, and the city has the surrounding Valley Creek Park listed as a 2019-20 project in its capital improvement plan.

In a fast-growing city where the landmarks are shopping malls, the Miller Barn site could become a place for people of all ages to learn about the agricultural history of Woodbury.

Six people have formed a Save The Miller Barn Committee, and they are looking for donations, one-time volunteers and members for the committee and heritage society.

Heritage society members are imagining kids playing in the hay in a haymow restored to its early 1900s state. They want to have education stations to tell the story of Woodbury's origins, with audio descriptions of early life in their hometown. Local historians foresee themselves asking for input from Native Americans who could tell about Dakota tribes who first lived on the land that is now Woodbury. The upper level of the barn could be rented as an event center.

Members want Woodbury residents to learn what a typical 1950s barn was like in Woodbury.

"If you grew up in Woodbury you probably wouldn't even know this was a farming community," Flynn said.

"And that's all that it was," Schilling said of the time before Woodbury's housing explosion.

Proponents of the project are dreaming of a Woodbury Heritage Park on the grounds around the barn, where demonstrations of fieldwork and tending to livestock could occur. A playground of the past, amphitheater for historic theater productions, and picnic areas could be added.

All of that would cost at least $500,000 to compliment the city funding of Valley Creek Park. The Woodbury Heritage Society is prepared to take on a leadership role in historical preservation, including a fundraising campaign for a $100,000 endowment fund.

But first steps first. For preservation to occur, the Woodbury Heritage Society has been charged with finding the funding for siding and roofing on the Miller Barn.

The roof has been appraised as nonfunctional. On sunny days, light streams through thin cracks between most of the wallboards, and "we may need a relocation program for the pigeon society," Schilling said. The birds took up residence in the rafters.

Any temporary fixes won't be historically accurate, so building materials are being discussed.

Woodbury Heritage Society began fundraising last month, once it knew the Woodbury City Council was committed to letting the group's initial efforts play out.