One could call it a little house on the prairie.
Rising from a barren swatch of the Kansas plains on the edge of a field of milo stubble, the century-old barn stands as a testament to a different time. However, all that remained of what was known as the “Mills’ Barn” to locals were its four stout golden limestone walls.
The years have ravaged the structure, and salvage crews have robbed it of its roof and gutted the interior. This left the shell to fend for itself against the harsh elements, a lone sentinel on the south side of Old U.S. 40 highway between Russell and Gorham.
Earlier this fall, that all changed. Veteran contractor and Russell native Carl Denning thought it was time to write the next chapter for the historic building.
“Something had to be done,” Denning said. “We decided we wanted to save it.” By “we,” he referred to himself and long-time friend and Russell County landowner Warren Gfeller.
Gfeller bought the property in 1990. Denning purchased it from him in 2010.
The plan – convert the barn into a fully functional home.
A history of the Mills’ Barn
The land where the barn sits was homesteaded by Robert P. Mills in 1905. Both in their 80s, it was his grandchildren, Steve Mills and Margaret Godfrey, who sold the land to Gfeller. Mills lives in California and Godfrey in Kansas City.
According to Denning, the barn was an anachronism, even at the time it was built. “It was out of its era.”
Constructed in 1910, it was intended to house horses and other livestock used in farming. However, just a few years later, those animals became obsolete with the increased prevalence of tractors and other modern farm machinery.
“It wasn’t used very long,” Denning said. The doors were too narrow for today’s heavy equipment.
Remaining in the Mills family, it sat unused for decades as part of a deteriorating farmstead. In the 1980s, a large, two-story house (that was never painted) and other outbuildings were razed or succumbed to nature, and the barn’s roof and interior were stripped.
“Everyone has a story about the barn,” Denning said. “There is a lot of history. It is a real landmark.”
Even as young bucks in the early 1970s, Denning and his buddies thought something should be done with the building. The idea of a bar was mentioned a time or two.
Most recently, members of the Mills family thought about dismantling it piece by piece and moving it to Beverly Hills to become a restaurant.
For the past 20 years or so, all that has stood has been the walls, which are made up of two layers of limestone. Water had started to penetrate those layers, and the ensuing freezing and thawing had started to split them apart. “That’s why we wanted to do something now,” Denning said.
The barn remained as sound as it could be, a tribute to the craftsmanship that went into it. “It was well built, to say the least,” he said.
“The limestone is basically expensive siding,” Denning said. The new house will be a free-standing, self-supporting structure within the structure.
The home will have two master suites, two and a half bathrooms, living area, laundry room and other amenities, all covering 2,600 square feet. Water will come from an on-site well and it will be electrified. “It will be completely self sufficient,” Denning said.
Contrary to popular belief, Denning said the stone isn’t all that great of an insulator. The new home will be very efficient.
Denning hopes to have the project done by spring, but that might not happen. “It has to come secondary at times. We work it in between paying jobs.”
He is an active contractor with a lot of irons in the fire.
Assisting on the project is another contractor, Larry Prier of Kansas City. Prier has worked with Denning in the past and, since the housing market back east is slow, he helps when he can.
The interior of the home will echo the original architecture of the barn, utilizing some of the existing stone, barn fixtures and shapes. It will have sort of a Southwestern feel, Denning said.
“It will be almost a period thing,” he said of maintaining the original look. But, there will be a modern, eclectic twist.
“I’ve had ideas stashed away over the years,” he said. “This is a chance to use them.”
Eventually, he hopes to have a garage and courtyard with simple landscaping. “It will be sort of an oasis in the backyard,” he said. But, “it’s pretty barren right now.”
Denning left Russell in 1977 and worked as a contractor in eastern Kansas and Oklahoma. He moved back to Russell in 2009 from Manhattan shortly before his mother Margaret died. His father C.J. had passed away several years earlier.
He now lives in the house his parents built and where he grew up. He said he will soon face a dilemma – sell the family place to move into the new dream home or not. But, “I have plenty of time.”