Reclaimed wood from Hatch Dairy Experiment Station serves as foundation for Willett home
Brad Willett cleaned up this gate from the Hatch farm dairy barn and it now has a functional as well as attractive function in his home on Centerville Road.
By MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
Retired editor, Hannibal Courier-Post
A description of the barns constructed for the Hatch Dairy Experiment Station in Hannibal during the Great Depression wouldn't be complete without a mention that the state-owned farm, which operated into the 1960s in the Oakwood region of Hannibal, was built in conjunction with the WPA program. The Works Projects Administration (WPA) was designed to put people to work. J. Brad Willett , who purchased two barns on the site of the state-owned former home and farm of U.S. Rep. William H. Hatch (1833-1896) in the mid 1970s, 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, including 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 Keith Schoonover at F&M Bank. They were told they were not well enough off 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. Willett talked them into putting the buildings up for auction instead. John Yancey served as auctioneer. 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 it, 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 Under WPA specifications, "everything was as labor intensive as they could make it," Willett said. "The construction was beautiful." 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. A trained chemical engineer, Willett was working for Crane and Fleming at the time. "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." It wasn't God, as it turned out. "Someone had launched a hot air balloon from the golf course. I still remember that." Recycling innovator Willett , a retired engineer for Cyanamid, 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. The steel posts were used by Jack's Harbor Marine 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." Brad and Donna waited a year, and took their house plans back to F&M Bank. He had designed the house one way, then redesigned the plans to accommodate the lumber. Keith Schoonover smiled when he heard the story and said, "Just tell me how much you need."