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Passing on a buyout, farm owner sows seeds of preservation

ROGERS, Minn. (AP)--John Hagel lives in a 115-year old cream-colored brick farmhouse that's way short on functioning toilets. Crumbling fieldstone foundations and rotting floorboards are the norm in the farmstead's 15 outbuildings.

The roof on that massive barn? It's a mess, covered with weathered cedar shakes and crumbling asphalt shingles. Hagel feels blessed by all this. The farm, he says, has integrity. Most of what's here now has been here, just as it is, for five generations.

Next month, he's hoping to convince a jury of archaeologists, historians and preservationists that this 150-year-old family farmstead near the exurb of Rogers is worthy of a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

In fact, he's proposing that the entire 120-acre farm--buildings, wooded lots, wetlands and agricultural fields--be designated a historic district. If the panel agrees, it would be the first and only complete original farmstead in Hennepin County to earn such recognition.

National Register Historian Susan Roth of Minnesota's State Historic Preservation Office believes Hagel has little reason to worry.

"The Hagel farm has extremely high physical integrity," said Roth, who has been working with Hagel to prepare his application. "I'm feeling very confident that the board will look approvingly."

The board will hear Hagel's petition on Oct. 24. If approved, it will be forwarded to the National Register office in Washington, D.C. A decision is expected by year's end.

The decision to preserve his farm was an easy one for Hagel, even though he'd probably be a millionaire if he'd bulldoze these aging buildings and sell the land.

That's what a neighbor did a few years back with an 80-acre parcel in this rapidly developing corridor between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud. It sold for $1.2 million; it now has 19 new houses on it, complete with curbs, asphalt trails and streetlights.

That doesn't interest Hagel, a historical consultant and co-founder of the Friends of Minnesota Barns. He has spent 16 of his 48 years struggling to preserve his family's heritage and he's staying put, right here at the end of one of the area's few remaining gravel roads. His great-great grandparents, Peter and Helena Hagel settled on this land; his great-grandparents built the house he now calls home. He didn't grow up here, but his grandfather, Arnold Hagel, did, and so did his father, Leroy.

Leroy, a nimble 80-year-old, remembers his youth on the family farm in vivid, barn-red detail. The chicken coop door still bears his initials he put there in the summer of 1940, the year he painted all the out buildings.

Arnold Hagel died in 1951 at age 54. That sad event ironically contributed to freezing the farmstead in time. Leroy had already decided to make his living off the farm, but his mother, Anna, chose to stay. She sold off the implements and the animals and rented out the fields, so without the need to adapt to new farming practices or to suffer the wear and tear of daily use, the farm buildings remained virtually unchanged.

John Hagel moved into the house shortly after his grandmother died in 1987. As a kid growing up in Golden Valley, he said, trips to Grandma's farm had always been special.

"It was gravel roads all the way out," said Hagel. "It felt like we were coming out to the country. And we were."

Today when he stands in the same farmyard, Hagel hears the steady drone of Interstate Highway 94, just 3 miles away. Asphalt roads have replaced gravel, and countless suburban homes have sprung from fields that once grew corn, oats and wheat.

Hagel says he wants future generations to understand the role family farms played in our collective history. His long-term goal is to transform this precious place into a folk school, where people could learn the traditional crafts his own family practiced there, from blacksmithing to timber framing.

"There's a thirst by people to get back to the basics, to use their own creativity in a natural setting," said Hagel. "If I won the Powerball tomorrow, that school would be my dream."

In the meantime, his more immediate concern is the upcoming hearing.

"Being named to the National Register is like winning the gold medal," said Hagel. "I'm excited, and a little nervous, too."

Date: 9/28/06


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