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Preserving history: Meet the man keeping this rare, 106-year-old brick round barn alive

In the countryside of Salem, Iowa, sits one of the most unique barns in the country. It's three stories tall, 50 feet across and 360 degrees around.

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — When it comes to seeing barns in Iowa, you might say that's nothing special. But when it comes to Redstone Ranch, special is just the start of it all. 

According to the Iowa Barn Foundation, approximately 200,000 barns have been built in Iowa. But of those, round barns are the rarest. It's estimated only 0.13%, or 250, of all Iowa's barns are round. Of those, only 74 remain standing today. Many of those remaining round barns are wooden, with most in various states of disrepair. 

But down in Salem, Iowa, one round barn stands proud as a historical marker. 

Built in 1917 by Mr. B.J. Holtkamp, the historic old barn is one of the most unique farm structures in the country. Rather than the typical wood, it's made from red clay brick tile. It stands three stories tall, is 50 feet across and is 360 degrees around. And everything - save the roof - is original from 106 years ago, including all of the interior wood. 

"It is a very big piece of this area's history. You can go over to the town of Salem and pretty much ask anybody over there, they'll know where the round barn's at," Steven Klein said. 

Klein and his wife are the current owners of the barn and its surrounding property. They bought the place six years ago. Since then, Klein has become the barn's caretaker and historian. 

As we explored all three floors of the structure, Klein rattled off facts and stories for everything we touched. An old wiring tube from the 1940s, when the barn was outfitted for electricity. The old wooden feed bins that could hold 10,000 bushels of grain and corn. 

Down below, feed bins and horse stalls still stand from a bygone era when 16 horses could live down there at once. There are chalk markings on the walls, where people recorded their laps while exercising on the lowest floor decades ago. 

Overhead, a custom-made pully where ropes would be hooked onto teams of horses hauling fresh hay into the lofts. All told, 100,000 pounds of hay could be comfortably stored in the structure's towering upper floor. 

The wood below our feet, hauled in from a long-since-gone sawmill four and a half miles away. The bricks were brought in by teams of horses from ten miles away in Mount Pleasant.

Above the horse stalls is one of Klein's favorite parts of the barn. Eight 1x8 boards, nailed together, sweated and put through a jig until they bent into a giant circle. Together, these boards comprise the header that centers the entire structure. It bears the weight of the barn, as well as the weight of time. 

("If you were 106 years old, you'd be warped too," Klein laughed.) 

Everywhere we turned, there was another sign of the lives that passed through the old round barn. 

"In 106 years, how many people have walked in here?" Klein questioned. 

Back in 1917, it cost B.J. Holtkamp $1,900 to build the entire structure (a price that wouldn't even pay for the lumber in one floor, nowadays, Klein joked). It took five men about four and a half months to build the barn. 

So what was the reason for the roundness? 

At the time, circular barns were being popularized by Iowa universities as more efficient. Farmers could work in the center of a circle with their cows or horses, and a central silo could send food straight down from the loft to where animals slept on the lower floor. But by the time the 1920s came to an end, the round barns had fallen quickly out of style as they proved to be more complicated and expensive to build than a square building. 

Holtkamp got a deal on his bricks, as they were too imperfect for the local brick and tile company. The red clay squares are actually hollow, making them lightweight but able to withstand pressure. As a round barn, all the wind out on the midwestern prairie could blow around it, instead of hammering against a side. 

Today, the barn is on the National Register of Historic Places and is also recognized for its historical value by the Iowa Barn Foundation. 

Klein says on a nice day, people will often stop by the barn and ask for a tour. If he's not busy, Klein says he always obliges. 

"I'm more than happy to show it to people," Klein said. "Money's not the point. The point is to show it to people. Keep the history alive." 

Over the years, he's heard countless stories of people who visited the barn as kids. Klein and his wife also stay in touch with the surviving Holtkamp grandkids and relatives (who we're told are thrilled the current owners are just as interested in preserving the barn as they are). 

Now, Klein says he'd love to see the 106-year-old barn make it to 300 years.

"I'm keeping a gentleman's legacy going. It's not mine, but if I can help him, I will," Klein said. "There's a lot of times I come here and walk around. Look at the barn. Talk to the barn. You might think I'm crazy, but I do! I'll come outside and just talk to the barn." 

And what does he say when he's talking to the brick round barn? 

"Just like you're talking to a person. Ask her how it's doing. You know, got any problems today? Anything I need to fix? You just look around at her." 

To Klein, there's nothing more peaceful than spending an afternoon in the silence of the old barn. He'll listen to the birds and simply enjoy the stillness. 

"I think she's got a personality to her," Klein smiled. "See, to me, the barn's smiling right now. Because we're standing here doing this. I mean, just imagine 106 years. If these round walls could talk... everything that's went on in here. Everything that's happened." 

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