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Preservationists try to save Clarence barn for history

A big old barn on Greiner Road in Clarence, its worn gray wood imbued with two centuries of farming history, is up for sale.

Preservationists are trying to come up with several hundred thousand dollars to buy it and a few acres around it – at the same time a developer works on designs for 151 new homes on the surrounding pastures.

“You can’t wait till the development’s there to save it,” said Carol Conwall, leader of about a dozen preservationists behind the effort to raise the money to buy the 15-acre farmstead. “You have to take the initiative now … We need to hold onto our heritage and our values and where everything came from so we don’t lose it. The open view at some point will be gone.”

The farm buildings are nestled alongside a larger 118-acre portion being developed by Cimato Brothers. The Town Board last year approved the company’s Northwoods development, with some lots just 132 feet from the barn.

“Once the houses get built up, they’re not going to want to see this barn,” Conwall said. “ ‘It’s old and ugly,’ somebody might say. Eventually, there will be pressure on the property owner to take it down,”

That’s why her group, Clarence Town Heritage, is sponsoring a rally Saturday, to help raise $600,000 to buy the farm buildings and do some restoration work.

The barn, farmhouse and 15 acres are all that remain of what was built by early 19th-century German farmers whose names are etched on a barn door.

If successful in purchasing the property, the heritage group’s plans for the barn, farmhouse, creek and winding entryway are still evolving.

The Clarence farm could be a mix: a local history museum with farming demonstration plots, an artisan co-op, and a site to host barn weddings.

“How can we make something interesting and create new out of it?” said Conwall, a Clarence native who handles marketing for the town Chamber of Commerce and serves on its Historic Preservation Board. “There’s beauty in the barn and the farmstead. A lot of the younger generation, they’re realizing the value of the ways of old.”

Mennonite tradition

The farm at 8990 Greiner Road, where the rally will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, began as the home of the John Lapp family in 1828.

He moved with his family and other Mennonites from Pennsylvania to settle in Clarence. They were called “Pennsylvania Dutch,” referring to Germans or “Deutsch,” who came to the United States for religious freedom in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Farmers, they selected southern Clarence for its rich limestone soil. Their barns, like the one on Greiner Road, were big and distinctive, said John Conlin, a local historian and former editor of Western New York Heritage magazine.

“It’s spectacular for what it is,” Conlin said as he walked with Conwall on the grounds and the rutted dirt road, while trees screened Greiner Road in the distance.

“What architect is going to design such a picturesque approach as this road?” he said. “This place is still here and it’s luck. That’s an opportunity.”

Barn architecture

Robert Riegle was the last of four generations of farmers to work this land. He was killed in 1996 in a fall from the house’s roof.

Names neatly carved in the barn door frame reflect local families, some still living in Clarence: Friedrich Krehbiel, 1832. Kelkenberg, 1848.

The Lapp barn is one of the biggest and best preserved of that era, Conlin said.

The elements of Pennsylvania Dutch barns, scarce in Erie County, are all there. The five-story barn is built into a small hillside and takes advantage of the incline. Its stone foundation is the wall for ground floor quarters for animals, insulated from the cold by the earth on one side and hay stored on the floor above. The stall openings are sheltered by a cantilevered overhang. Grain stored on the floor above was safer from rodents because it didn’t touch the ground.

As Conlin and Conwall walked around, light poured into the main floor, which was open to the roof. Swallows and pigeons flew in and out of windows missing glass. Bales were still piled along one wall. Chewed corn cobs were on floors covered with hay. It was as if time moved more slowly at the farm than everywhere else.

Conlin knew the Riegle family and recalled visiting the farm in the 1970s, when the Riegles raised sheep there. Grain bins were filled with wool, which left lanolin on his hand when he touched them.

“I have seen this barn filled to the rafters with hay,” he said. “People talk in preservation about sense of place ... This is the essence of the cultural place here.”

A surgeon buys farm

A few years after Riegle died, Clarence officials considered buying the farm. It was discussed at meetings but nothing came of it. The land was split up.

“It just didn’t work out for whatever reason,” said Jim Callahan, director of community development.

Marguerite Riegle Ballow eventually gave up on trying to preserve the farmstead by selling to the town.

“My time is past,” said Ballow, 78.

Still, she would like to see the farm saved.

“There really is nothing left to show that Clarence is really a farming community,” she said.

Attracted by the serenity of the farm, Dr. Ismet Hallac paid $145,000 for the barn, house and 15 acres in 2000. It was a refuge from his neurosurgery practice.

“Let’s say I had a rough day,” he said. “I’d come here. Nobody can find me.”

He would cool off from the heat at a table he set up under a canopy of grape vines. He and his family of seven children went for picnics. He made a summer tradition of climbing up the cement grain silo to fly an American flag from the top.

“I just love this place,” he said. “This is not something you can replace.”

While he doesn’t have the wealth to donate the farm, Hallac, 85, wants to protect its future and sell it to Conwall’s group.

He stepped nimbly up stairs and through doorways. A short man with a suntanned face, he speaks with a light accent of his native Turkey.

“I’m from an old country where historical sites are extremely important,” he said. “Without knowing the old, you cannot know the future.”