J. Brad Willett, a retired engineer for American Cyanamid –– a chemical manufacturer now known as Cytec –– is proud of the fact that he was recycling materials before recycling came into vogue. The wood became the outside walls, rafters and sub floor for his house. The tin roof went to a bar in Perry, Mo. The steel posts were used by a local boating store to build an extension onto their building.
A description of the barns constructed for the Hatch Dairy Experiment Station in Hannibal, Mo., during the Great Depression wouldn’t be complete without a mention that the state-owned farm, which operated into the 1960s, was built in conjunction with the Works Projects Administration, which was designed to put people to work.
J. Brad Willett, a retired engineer, purchased the two barns in the mid 1970s. The barns were once the home to U.S. Rep. William H. Hatch (1833-1896). Willett said the craftsmanship on the barns was spectacular.
Over the course of three months, Willett would literally get to know those barns inside and out.
“Those barns were built like homes. It was all finished lumber,” Willett said. The wood included yellow pine and fir.
Willett’s affiliation with the Hatch farm was born of necessity. A year before, he had drawn up house plans, and he and his wife, Donna, went to talk with the local bank. They were told they were not well off enough financially to build a home and to come back in a few years. They were devastated.
Six months later, Brad learned that the state had plans to build the district headquarters for the highway department on the Hatch property. All buildings, including the Hatch house, were to be razed, but Willett talked them into putting the buildings up for auction instead.
Brad and his father, Marion Willett, arrived on the site after the bidding on the big barn had already begun.
“All of a sudden, we owned it,” Brad said.
Then bidding started on a barn nearby, and before he could realize what had happened, they owned that one, too. They paid in the neighborhood of $2,200 for both structures.
“I looked up at the size of the barns. We didn’t have any way to tear them down,” he said. But he would soon figure it out.
They had three months to tear the structures down and remove the materials from the property. They subsequently received a one-month extension. Brad, his friends and family literally tore down the barns one board at a time.
“Donna’s dad was our nail puller. We used to fill five-gallon buckets with nails.”
Barns constructed with precision
J. Brad Willett said while working under the Works Projects Administration specifications, “everything was as labor intensive as they could make it.
“The construction was beautiful,” he said.
The places where nails were to be hammered were actually marked on the boards in advance.
“Once we figured out how to take apart one rafter, every rafter in the row was exactly the same. It was that precise,” he said. “I tore down the barns during nights and weekends. The big barn was 25 feet tall on the loft. I have a fear of heights. I’d climb on the scaffolding at night so I couldn’t see how far up I was,” he said.
One Sunday morning, while working on the roof of the milk barn, he had an encounter that literally shook him to the core.
“It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. I was hammering and banging and tearing things up, and I heard a voice from above. ‘How you doing down there?’ I thought God was talking to me,” said Willett.
It wasn’t God, as it turned out.
“Someone had launched a hot air balloon from the golf course. I still remember that.”
J. Brad Willett, a retired engineer for American Cyanamid –– a chemical manufacturer now known as Cytec –– is proud of the fact that he was recycling materials before recycling came into vogue.
The wood became the outside walls, rafters and sub floor for his house. The tin roof went to a bar in Perry, Mo. The steel posts were used by a local boating store to build an extension onto their building.
“By the time we got finished, we had sold $2,800 worth of stuff. I made $600. I estimate we got $14,000 worth of lumber out of the barns,” said Willett.
Willett and his wife, Donna, waited a year and took their house plans back to the local bank. He had designed the house one way, and then he redesigned the plans to accommodate the lumber.
The banker smiled when he heard the story and said, “Just tell me how much you need.”