This article is published in Explore Magazine’s fall & winter 2018 issue, featuring Iowa’s scenic byways. This week, The Gazette will publish articles featuring one byway each day online. You can pick up a hard copy of the magazine at area businesses, convenience stores and grocery stores. You also can pick up a copy at The Gazette.\
United States history is often measured in decades, since our country was founded less than three centuries ago. As a result, Americans often think of a century-old building as historic and mark a centennial as a remarkable event.
The same is true for Lincoln Highway landmarks, many constructed over the last 100 years to coincide with the highway’s development. So DeWitt’s German Hausbarn, originally built in Germany in the early 18th century, marks a different chapter in time — one older than America itself.
“It’s such a distinctive visual,” says Angela Rheingans, executive director of the DeWitt Chamber and
Development Company. “It definitely makes people stop and say, ‘What’s that?’”
The Hausbarn, located in DeWitt’s Lincoln Park near the intersection of the original Lincoln Highway (later Highway 30) and the historical Blues Highway (now Highway 61), was known as the Moritzen Haus when it was originally built in the village of Niebull in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, in 1727. As its name implies, a traditional hausbarn served a dual purpose, housing a family in one end and livestock and other agricultural supplies in the other.
In 2007, DeWitt resident Karl Maass learned the building was set to be demolished and approached the city council to request it be moved to DeWitt, a town of just over 5,000 with a strong German heritage.
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Donations and grants were solicited to fund the effort, and over the next year, the Hausbarn was dismantled and shipped to DeWitt for reconstruction. Much of the building’s original structure was preserved, though some bricks, windows and doors had to be replaced using historically correct materials and designs. Over 5,000 hours of volunteer labor brought the project to fruition, and the museum was formally opened to the public in October 2009.
One of the most challenging aspects of the reconstruction was replacing the building’s thatched roof. Rheingans said professional craftsmen from Germany were called in to assemble the woven structure, using a special water reed imported from northern Europe.
The roof has an estimated life span of 60 years, Rheingans said, but has to be trimmed and maintained regularly. “Fortunately, we found a professional company in the U.S. that maintains thatched roofs, so we now have a reliable resource,” she added.
In its current configuration, the Hausbarn includes a museum with historic exhibits in the former agricultural portion and offices for the DeWitt Chamber and Development Company, along with community spaces and a visitor’s center, in the former residential portion. Many local residents have donated German tools and artifacts for display, and the museum has become a focal point of a community that’s thrived economically for decades.
“I think that any time a small community has something unique, it gives people a chance to shop and explore, and the Hausbarn has done that for DeWitt,” Rheingans said. “What I like about our Hausbarn is that it’s not a re-creation — it’s an authentic building that we actually brought in. You can see the original beauty and the structure.
“As a country, we’re very young, and even younger in the Midwest,” she added. “So the fact that we could bring something like this straight from Germany — it’s like bringing our heritage a little closer to home.”
WHAT: German Hausbarn
WHERE: 1010 Sixth Ave., DeWitt
CONTACT: (563) 659-8500, dewittiowa.org
DETAILS: Open daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; call for guided weekend tours