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Mark Kurth and Shelby Moravec
GRATEFUL OWNERS: Mark Kurth and Shelby Moravec are thankful that Jeff Jentzen, who happened to have a fire extinguisher in his vehicle, passed by and saw a fire starting on the side of their historic barn.

Quick action by motorist saves historic barn

A 102-year-old LaPorte County, Ind., barn came within minutes of being destroyed by fire.

By Stan Maddux  

Credit fate, perhaps, for one of the most historic barns in Indiana not going up like matchsticks.

The freshly restored red barn at Forrester Farm outside LaPorte suffered minimal damage Jan. 9 because a passerby who happened to be a former firefighter was carrying an extinguisher.

Jeff Jentzen was heading home from his job in Portage when he caught a glimpse of flickering flames. The door frame on the north side of the barn was burning, and flames were starting to climb the outside wall. Jentzen grabbed the fire extinguisher from his company truck and put a good knockdown on the fire.

He raced to the old two-story farmhouse and notified Shelby Moravec. Jentzen emptied another fire extinguisher handed to him by Moravec. Volunteer firefighters doused what little was left of the flames.

“It was meant to be,” Jentzen says.

“To stop and take action — I can’t thank him enough,” Moravec says.

She and her husband, Mark Kurth, own the 102-year-old barn and English-style farmhouse built in 1856.

The property is on the National Registry of Historic Places. The barn is also on the list of the 200 most historic barns in Indiana.

Close call
Scipio Township Fire Chief Eric Fenstermaker estimated the barn would have burned up like kindling had the fire gone unnoticed for another 10 minutes. The cause appears to be electrical.

A 1957 Allis-Chalmers tractor and two fully restored Triumph motorcycles from 1968 and 1972 inside the barn were also spared. Kurth, a full-time product design engineer, restores antique vehicles and motorcycles. He uses the barn to store his refurbished vehicles until they’re sold, along with equipment to maintain the old farmstead.

“We’re feeling extremely lucky,” says Kurth, who was at a trade show in Las Vegas when the barn caught fire. The original owner, James Forrester, came to the U.S. from Ireland in 1818. Sixteen years later, Forrester set foot in LaPorte County, where he became a distributor of salt, sugar, glass and other items, says LaPorte County historian Fern Eddy Schultz.

Forrester later acquired farmland where the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City stands today. Schultz says in 1837, he sold his holdings and purchased the now historic ground where he spent the remainder of his life. Forrester served two terms in the state Legislature after the Civil War.

Plenty of history
The lives of Forrester and his wife, Lavina, ended tragically while attending the Indiana State Fair in 1880. Schultz says they died from gas believed to have escaped from a defective pipe in a room where they were staying.

Schultz isn’t sure what was originally raised on the property but says farms in those days grew predominantly corn. Kurth says hogs must have been raised there as well, judging by receipts from stockyards he found in the attic. He also discovered the foundation of what appeared to be a hog barn.

The house sat empty for about 10 years before Moravec and Kurth moved in just over three years ago following an extensive renovation. Restoration of the barn followed.

Kurth says other people bought the farmland surrounding the house. He and Moravec operate a large vegetable garden to grow food for their own consumption, with the Allis-Chalmers tractor helping with the tilling.

Maddux writes from South Bend, Ind.

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