Rustic Innovations
Preserving History, Recycling Barns

Published - Monday, January 09, 2006, Winona Daily News

Don Bittner of Fountain City never expected to own a piece of his grandfather's history, but when Curt Richter began to disassemble the barn in late winter of 2005 where Arthur Bittner used to work, he found this stick with Bittner's name carved into the side. Arthur Bittner whittled this memorabilia on his 21st birthday, January 19 of 1917, which his grandson would possess more than 88 years later. (Photo by Kate Weber of the Winona Daily News)

Carving reaches grandson after 88 years
By Brian Voerding | Winona Daily News

Thereís a stick in Don Bittnerís living room, set neatly in the center of a glass case, about 15 inches long and an inch thick, curved in a crude, slender "S" with a knob at one end; the bark has been shorn neatly off.

Itís a piece of firewood, or maybe it just broke off from a tree, Don said; he isnít sure. What he is sure about, though, is the exact date that bark was removed 88 years ago; itís carved into the wood. And he knows who carved it, because the personís name, a name he knows, is etched next to the date.

In late February and early March 2005, Curt Richter was tearing down an old barn in East Burns Valley. Richter is the president of a company called Rustic Innovations, which restores historic barns. Curt buys the barns from people who no longer need or can afford to repair them, who would otherwise just destroy them. He takes the barns down piece by piece, hauls the pieces back to his shop in Scandia, Minn., then rebuilds and sells them.

Curt had nearly finished the teardown and was doing some final cleaning when he saw the stick half-buried in the snow. He almost just left it and kept walking, but he knew from experience that you find neat things sometimes when youíre taking down old barns. So he looked closer. And thatís when he saw the writing.

The stick had a name carved into it. It also had a date, Jan. 19, 1917, and a location, Winona, Minn.

Curt pulled it from the snow and thought about what he might do with it. At first, he said, he thought he would pass the piece of history along to whomever he sold the barn to.

Then he thought he should find out how the name on the stick was connected to the barn. He went to the Winona County Historical Society, where he came across a book by Ruth Marg about the Bittner family, who owned the barn in the early 1900s.

He contacted Ruth, who directed him to Donís brother Ken Bittner, who told Curt, yes, he knew the name, and he would send out an e-mail with a photo to his family.

Curt had a stick Donís grandfather, Arthur Bittner, had carved to mark his 21st birthday while working on the family farm. Arthur died in 1991 at the age of 95.

"Just seeing the picture was awesome," Don said. But he thought that was all he would see; he hadnít heard anything about Curt returning the stick to the family. Months passed. In August, Donís phone rang; it was Curt, camping in Lake City with his wife. He had the stick and he wanted to show it to Don. They met on the 21st at the Garvin Heights lookout. Curt showed him the stick and posed with Don for a photo, each holding one hand on the stick. After the photo, Curt let go. He told Don he wanted him to keep it.

"His eyes sparkled," Curt said. "He couldnít stop looking at it. I knew I was giving it to somebody that it really meant something to."

Reporter Brian Voerding can be reached at (507) 453-3514 or at

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