Ralph Nieman Barn

Ralph Nieman relaxes in the 1936 swing hanging in the barn loft. The barn also includes a collection of tools, heirlooms and family photos.

By Steve Raymond

News Report Staff

It’s been standing for well over 100 years.

It has been used to milk dairy cows, house livestock, store straw, hay and equipment, plus a myriad of other things that are typical of a barn on a farm.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Ralph Nieman, this big red barn serves as a family museum, plus the site of a barn dance every year.

“Many years ago, farmers always had a barn dance before they started working on their barn. They believed it was good luck,” Ralph explained. “I remember going to a couple of those when I was a kid.”

Ralph hosted his first barn dance in 2006 – the same year he retired and the same year he started working on that barn.

“I wanted to do it to honor my family, plus I wanted to preserve it just because it had been here so long,” Ralph noted.

Nobody knows exactly when the barn was built.

“But the house was built in 1890 and we’re pretty sure the barn was already there,” Ralph said.

For five generations, the Nieman family has lived on the farm, located in the Green Creek area. Clemens Nieman settled there 177 years ago on Oct. 10, 1840. Ralph lived in the home place until he left for college and his daughter, Jennifer Wittenmyer, lives there currently.

Ralph is 72. He and his late wife, Lynn, had four kids, and they all still live within a quarter mile of each other now. That includes twin sons, Jeremy and Joshua, and son J.R., as well as Jennifer.

Ralph graduated from Teutopolis High School in 1963 and earned a bachelor’s degree in Math at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, graduating from there in 1967.

He farmed the ground until 1992 when he started Nieman Construction. He retired in 2006.

His first retirement project? The barn.

“It was deteriorating,” Ralph admitted. “I replaced the fascia boards and the bottom sheeting boards. I pulled all the loose nails out of the roof and replaced them with screws. It was getting to be pretty weak.”

He also replaced flooring and painted the barn red.

Ralph also noted that it is a pin barn. The only nails used were in the rafters when the roof was put on.

“It was very well-built,” he said. “And now after all this other work, it’s in pretty good shape.”

Ralph also thought the barn would be a good place for storage.

“I had a lot of old tools and pictures and thought the barn would be a good place to put them,” he explained. “But it just kept growing and growing.”

And today it’s like a family museum, especially upstairs in the loft.

There are many farm tools, including an old grab fork, a platform scale and a broad axe Ralph believes was used when the barn was originally built. The old rope system that was used to pull hay bales up to the loft is still visible. There are many family photos, plus old toys, heirlooms and even Clemens Nieman’s tombstone from when he passed away in 1902.

There are tables and chairs, including one made out of straw, and a swing that was made in 1936.

Even the loft walls have a family tie. Ralph used lumber from the old family garage (once used as a summer kitchen) to cover two of the walls; lumber from first cousin Harold and Marie Mader’s chicken house for another wall; and lumber from the old milk house to cover even more.

“When I started putting some of that stuff in here just to keep it out of the way, I had no idea it would turn into what it is now,” Ralph admitted.

There are also plenty of photos of barn dances through the years. Each year’s group of photos is distinguished by a picture of a cake, which is made, decorated and dated for every dance.

“When we had the first dance in 2006, I figured that would be the only one,” Ralph said. “But it was a lot of fun and everybody said we needed to do that again. This year was our 11th barn dance.”

About 120 family members, friends and neighbors are invited each year. Everybody brings food and country music is played all night long.

“The first few years, Gene and Jeannie Meyer provided the music. Their daughter played a guitar and a friend played the fiddle,” Ralph recalled. “They played a few years, then we had a DJ for a couple years. Thunder Road has played the last several years. Everybody really likes them.”

The loft is about 50 feet x 70 feet in size, plenty of room for a band and dancing. Ralph put plywood down to add strength to the flooring.

“People really look forward to it,” he said. “My family gets real excited about it. They’re a lot of help.”

The only year there wasn’t a barn dance was 2010; the year Lynn died.

“I would have probably let this thing die after my wife passed away,” Ralph noted.

But in February 2011, he met Dorothy Fosdick, who lived in Texas at the time. When she heard about the barn dance, she encouraged Ralph to keep it going.

“So we started back up in September 2011,” Ralph said. “And I’m glad we did.”

And by the way, Dorothy is now Ralph’s fiancée.

There was a “first” at this year’s dance just a couple weeks ago. A Cubs banner was hung on the east end of the barn.

“It’s up there permanently,” Ralph said. “My youngest brother is a big-time Cubs fan and so was my dad. When I was a kid, I remember dad having the radio on listening to the Cubs. I remember him telling me about walking to the neighbor’s house to listen to the 1932 World Series because he didn’t have a radio then. They played the Yankees that year. That’s back when Babe Ruth played.”

Ralph plans to continue hosting the barn dance each fall.

“As long as people want to come and keep it going, I will,” he said. “It really is a lot of fun.”

His only concern?

“Nobody is getting any younger. They’ve talked to me about putting in an elevator. But I don’t know how I’d do that.”