Contractor loves to restore old barns

Johnson is third generation to be in the business

Associated Press

ST. BONIFACIUS, Minn. -- Back in the heyday of the family-owned dairy farm, barns with gambrel roofs and cathedral-like shapes dotted Minnesota's rural landscape. Many of those aging farm structures have disappeared in the last 50 years or so, but others are still standing, serving as reminders of a bygone era.

Peter Johnson makes his living bringing new life to those old landmarks.

Johnson is the owner of PR Johnson Construction, a small St. Bonifacius-based business. Working with two or three employees (and additional crews in the summer), Johnson does some windstorm damage repair work, but he focuses mostly on restoring barns.


Barns and small farms aren't nearly as common as they used to be. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, there were 151,000 dairy farms in Minnesota in 1945. By 1998, the number was down to 9,500, and there are about 4,000 today.

Given those statistics, it might seem that Johnson is hitching his wagon to the wrong horse. But Johnson said there's still strong demand for his services. With annual sales of up to $400,000, he does 20 to 50 projects per year throughout Minnesota, ranging from cosmetic touchups to roof repairs and major structural work.

"There seems to be no end to the amount of work," Johnson said. "We always have more work than we can handle, it seems. There's probably four, five or six other contractors scattered around the state that do the same type of work. And they all seem to be pretty busy."

In fact, the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office lists 10 Minnesota contractors who specialize in barn restoration. Some of the businesses, such as Annandale-based Miller Barn Straightening, have been in the same family for multiple generations.

Johnson himself is a third-generation barn construction/restoration contractor. His grandfather Joseph, a Swedish immigrant, established the Bock Building Co. in 1926.

Johnson, who earned a construction engineering degree at Montana State University, worked for a commercial contractor in the Twin Cities for about 12 years before venturing out on his own. At first he intended to be a commercial contractor, but the economy was in recession at the time and he began to explore other business options.

"I was bidding on small commercial projects where there was like 30 bidders," he said. "So I thought, maybe I'll dabble in this barn thing again."

Dabbling in barn restoration has its own challenges. Among the biggest -- from a client's perspective -- are finding new uses for the barns and justifying the repair costs, Johnson said.


Under a typical scenario, Johnson might get a call from someone who recently bought an old farm. The new owner wants to save the sagging barn on the property, but isn't sure if it's worth the cost of restoration.

A typical restoration, depending on the project, will cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000. While restorations can be substantially cheaper than building a new structure, Johnson said, it's sometimes just as cheap to put up a new building.

One of Johnson's clients, Dave Bobert, spent about $80,000 restoring his 1870s-era barn near Cannon Falls. The barn itself was "straight as an arrow," Bobert said, but the roof leaked and the foundation needed to be replaced, among other problems.

Bobert and his wife, Kim, considered a number of less expensive options before deciding on a full restoration. Over a five-year period beginning in 1995, they replaced the roof, floor, foundation and siding, and added a cupola.

The barn, which is being used primarily for storage, makes the property look like a real farm instead of just a house in the country, Bobert noted.

"I felt an obligation to the barn itself to protect it," he added. "I think it adds a lot of character."

A barn preservation movement bodes well for Johnson's business, which is doing quite well more than 75 years after his grandfather built his first barn in rural Minnesota.

"When I was in the classroom studying engineering 25-30 years ago, this isn't exactly what I envisioned myself doing," Johnson said. "But it's a path that I've certainly enjoyed. It's kind of unique, and there is a great deal of pride in preserving a building that otherwise wouldn't be preserved. There just aren't too many of us out there that are doing this kind of work."

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