NEUBERGTHAL -- While cleaning under the sink of an abandoned housebarn here several years ago, Margruite Krahn received a start.
She thought she'd discovered a dead rat. She soon realized it was just a braid of hair from the widow who last lived there.
The braid was about a foot long and as thick as nautical rope. Women back then would grow their hair past their waists and sometimes to the floor, then braid it each morning and wrap it around their heads or fasten it into a bun.
The incident was not some great epiphany, just a reminder of the stories houses tell, including housebarn houses. Now the community of Neubergthal, just southeast of Altona, hopes the Eddie Schmidt Housebarn -- the former farmhand who owned the housebarn after the widow, Elizabeth Klippenstein, and who bequeathed it to the Neubergthal Heritage Foundation in 2006 -- has many more stories to tell.
The Neubergthal foundation has embarked on an ambitious $1-million project to renovate the housebarn into a community hub and education centre. Plans are in the works to hold several fundraisers, including an "open housebarn" next spring, like the historic house visits in Winnipeg. Plans are to open up six housebarns to the public, along with demonstrations like bread-baking and cheese-making.
"There are things to be learned from the heritage by preserving these places and using them as a teaching tool," said Krahn, chairwoman of the foundation.
Neubergthal is a housebarn street village that was designated a National Historic Site in 1997. But preservation of a heritage site suggests hanging on by the scraping fingernails. Residents wanted their town to be relevant in the 21st century. Hence the Eddie Schmidt Housebarn project.
The project's concept is to look back at the past to see if anything abandoned from then can be applied to a society focused on mass production and low-cost goods.
The housebarn already hosts outdoor classes for a sustainable-energy course run by W.C. Miller Collegiate in Altona. Teacher Bruce Friesen-Pankratz recently took students to the housebarn to demonstrate historic methods of energy production, such as making charcoal and briquettes and even manure bricks for producing even heat for cooking.
The Neubergthal housebarns are also a prime example of passive solar energy -- all have a bank of south-facing windows to use southern exposure for warming and cooling. When the sun is lower in the winter, it shines in the windows and helps warm the barn; when sun is high in summer, it keeps it cooler.
Public education classes with the Red River Technical Vocational Area (supported by a dozen Manitoba school divisions) are also in the works to provide horticulture and agriculture courses. The thrust of its agriculture education would examine traditional versus modern farm practices, including organic farming and the small-farm movement.
"We want to talk sustainability, but not as a flash word. That is where the future lies," said Terry Mierau, who operates one of the town's housebarns and keeps livestock in it.
Neubergthal has also made connections with various university faculties, including hosting architecture students. Housebarn architecture is often British on the outside, Mennonite on the inside.
Plans are for the Eddie Schmidt Housebarn exterior to be restored to its original state. The interior would then be renovated as office space, a resource library and classrooms. The barn interior will be renovated for a 200-seat lecture and exhibition hall, with a teaching kitchen. The project will also include moving a former one-room schoolhouse built in 1904 to the site.
The foundation has raised $200,000 already, thanks to grants from the likes of the Winnipeg Foundation, the Thomas Sill Foundation and others, but still needs $800,000, not counting sweat equity.