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Leaving a legacy

Kiehm appreciated countryside of barns

By Kevin Mertens - Staff Writer | Jan 24, 2021

In 1993, Earl Kiehm and his granddaughter Sharon took a tour of the barns Earl had built back in the 1920s and 1930s. Later on a calendar would be published which featured information and pictures about the barns they visited that day. Earl also constructed houses and many other farm buildings. He was a craftsman who designed and built cupboards, cradles, cedar chests along with a multitude of games and craft projects. Many of the barns are still standing today.

Barns. They dot the countryside of rural America. Barns, it could be argued, were probably the second most important building on a farm site, second only to a house. Perhaps some people might argue a barn was more important than the house.

Earl Kiehm certainly had an appreciation for barns. He built his first one nearly one hundred years ago. Though Earl left this world in 1996, many of the structures he designed and constructed still stand today, mostly in Faribault County but also in Blue Earth County.

In 1993, Earl, then 96 years of age and with the encouragement of family and friends, revisited the barns he had built. Later on, somebody, (no one seems to remember who) had the idea to put together a calendar with pictures and information from Earl’s tour of the barns. Other history and facts for this article were obtained from the personal notes of Earl and his wife, Harriett.

The history of Earl’s family begins not in Delavan, where he eventually called home, but in Pennsylvania, where the Kiehms originally settled in the 1850s. The family moved west to Dixon, Illinois, in 1889 and that is where Earl was born in 1896. The Kiehms leased land and sharecropped for about 20 years in Illinois before purchasing a farm in Prescott Township, south of Delavan, in the fall of 1909.

Between 1910 and 1912 the family operated two farms, the one in Illinois and the one in Minnesota, until they could close down the operations in Illinois. The Kiehm family achieved this by splitting up the family. Earl’s father and two older siblings, who were barely adults, moved to Delavan and ran the new farm. Earl’s mother and her three younger sons, one of them being Earl, remained in Dixon to finish the 1911 crop, have a sale and prepare for the move. The family was finally reunited in Delavan by 1912 and Earl would call the farm his home for the remainder of his life.

One of the pages of the calendar reveals Earl’s formal education ended when he graduated from eighth grade at Wolverine School in Palmyra Township in Illinois. The class motto was Labor Conquers All, and it was said Earl took the motto very seriously.

Earl would farm with his father during crop season and do carpentry and construction projects. During the winter months he and his brother Robert would head to the woods of northern Minnesota and work as lumberjacks. Earl worked with timber and lumber all of his life and operated a sawmill at his farm for about 25 years.

“He is thought to be one of the first persons in Faribault County, if not the first, to operate a chainsaw,” his granddaughter Carol (Kiehm) Humburg says. “At 84 years old he had a mishap with a chainsaw which required a trip to the doctor, who reminded Earl he needed to be more careful. Grandpa basically told him, ‘Listen here you young whippersnapper, I’ve been running a chainsaw longer than you have been alive so you do not need to tell me how to run a chainsaw.'”

Earl built his first barn in 1928 for Charlie Springer and over the next 12 years he would build at least 11 more of the structures. While it would seem to be enough to keep him busy, the barns were not the only projects he was working on. He also constructed many other buildings in the Delavan area in the 1920s and 1930s including houses and outbuildings.

This history compiled for the calendar says he was a fine craftsman who also built cupboards, cradles, cedar chests along with a multitude of games and craft projects.

The notes also reveal the size and cost of many of the barns. For instance, he wrote that one barn was 28 feet wide by 40 feet long and the cost of material and labor was $1,895.

“Sometimes grandpa would stay on the farm where he was building,” Humburg comments.

In other notes, someone recorded, “Earl was a visionary and was always on the move. His mind was always on the next project, even into his 90s. He never wanted to tear anything down. If a building was too small or outdated, he would build something newer, bigger or more modern beside it and maintain them both.”

His visionary thinking led to his being part of building a barn south of Mapleton that was very unique.

Earl’s explanation of the construction of the barn is found on the calendar.

“It was 36 feet by 72 feet with a round roof and sawed rafter. It had prestressed cement joists,” he was quoted as saying. ” A company in Mankato had the cement work and I had all the wooden parts. It was the first barn in the world with cement joists and a cement hay mow floor. It was in many advertisements by the cement companies.”

The first barns Earl constructed had straight roofs but later on he learned how to build barns with round roofs and it would become his preferred type of construction.

But construction was not the only business Earl was involved with.

“Grandpa, along with his brother George, owned a campground in the Grand Canyon,” Humburg says. “It was called Moqui Campground. George had hay fever so he ran the campground because the climate was better for his health.”

The brothers owned the campground from 1939 to 1947.

Earl would return to the campground years later and was surprised how much it cost to stay there.

“I used to own it and now I cannot afford to stay there,” Earl was quoted as saying.

Late last fall, the barn Earl had constructed on his own farm was damaged by fire and his family members have said they will take down the now-somewhat-charred remains of the little ‘horse barn.’

“It is sad,” Humburg notes. “Barns are becoming a part of lost history that future generations will not see.”

But through the calendar, which many people in the Delavan area still possess, the history of Earl Kiehm has been recorded so people can come to know and appreciate the work of the man who loved to build barns.