Barn Whisperer: Frank Eld-Harkonen Brings Historic Buildings to Life

Frank Eld (Harkonen) Idaho Barn Whisperer
Photo by Ken Levy

By KEN LEVY

Historian and preservationist Frank Eld-Harkonen is Idaho’s Barn Whisperer.

The Finnish log construction expert delves deep into his family’s roots with extensive research of the building styles originating in this Northern European nation.

You can find any such examples of this construction throughout Idaho and several states.

Armed with that information, Eld-Harkonen helps restore old barns and homes, including the Schick-Ostolasa barn, the oldest barn in Ada County and, so far as anyone knows, in the state.

He also relocated and restored an 1893 Victorian home in Boise and made it his own.

He and his brothers completely restored the home inside and out, following the original construction as nearly as possible.

Finnish Heritage

Eld-Harkonen, 74, was born in a Finnish community in Idaho’s Long Valley. His father came to the United States in 1899, and his maternal grandparents came here in 1905.

In 1963, as a senior in high school during the Idaho Territorial Centennial, Eld-Harkonen helped establish a temporary museum in Donnelly City Hall.

Five years later, he bought the old general store in Roseberry and converted it into a museum.

Building History

Over the next 46 years, Eld-Harkonen expanded Roseberry into a 25-building historical area.

Most of those buildings, he said, came from other locations. These included eight Finnish log buildings, “and that’s where I got into Finnish log construction documentation and history.”

The Secrets of Finnish Log Construction

Finnish log construction doesn’t use chinking between the logs. Chinking seals the joints and cracks between the logs.

“They scribed the logs with a vara and fitted the logs tightly together,” he said. The vara is an adjustable scribe. “That’s an art, that’s the key, the secret tool of the Finns. That’s what makes it unique.”

Faithful Restoration

Eld-Harkonen supervised the restoration of all of these buildings, following the original construction as faithfully as possible. This included the barn Gust Lehti (a Finn) built. The barn is of hand-hewn, post-and-beam construction.

The barn was about 8 to 10 miles from the Roseberry site. Eld-Harkonen convinced the owner to allow him to take the barn down, board by board, and rebuild it in its present location.

Delving Deep Into Finnish Construction Techniques

After trips to Finland confirmed and enhanced his knowledge of Finnish construction techniques, Eld-Harkonen traveled to Finnish communities in the upper United States and Canada, exploring this style of homestead building.

Armed with his enhanced research skills and love of old buildings and construction styles, he wrote and self-published Discovering Our Heritage: Finnish Log Construction: The Art in 2013.

He has lectured on the subject across much of America and was the 2017-2018 Lecturer of the Year for Finlandia Foundation National.

Barn Whisperer

Eld-Harkonen helps restore and brings buildings back to their historical beginnings as much as possible.

And that’s why he’s called the Barn Whisperer.

“Because of my understanding and background in construction, I can juggle that building and make it talk to me, tell me how it was made, give up its secrets,” he said.

Saving the Schick-Ostolasa Barn

Eld-Harkonen first learned of the Schick-Ostolasa barn, in the Dry Creek area outside Boise, through classes in public history at Boise State University. Phillip Schick built his homestead there in the 1860s.

Eld-Harkonen saw the potential of preserving the largely neglected barn.

In June 2020, he said, “we took two, 30-yard dumpsters of junk out of that barn. I saw the posts and beams and said, ‘Oh my God, look at that!’”

Looking at that meant seeing huge lumber, way larger than was needed to hold the barn up and together. The posts are 10-by-10 inches, and the beams 8-by-8.

“I dug into the history and found out Phillip Schick was from New York,” he said.

He learned barns in New York and New England were “over-engineered.” Further research revealed the barn was built between 1863-1868.

The barn has hand-hewn beams in the center section and horse side. The cow side, however, is sawn lumber. It was added about 10 years later, after Schick’s nearest neighbor, about seven miles away, had a sawmill running by that time.

Eld-Harkonen decided the barn had to be saved. He learned doing so could cost up to $200,000, but he offered his services to help make it happen.

Six beams were completely rotted in the center.

“I have a saying when I do projects like this, whether it’s my research or building or restoration: I have Finnish karma,” he said. “It just comes from somewhere.”

Karma and Good Timing

That karma came into play when he went searching for replacements for the huge beams and posts. Lumber that size isn’t something you readily find at the local lumberyard.

But he got a forwarded email at just the right time, asking if he needed any lumber from a private mill in Garden Valley, owned by Bruce Reay.

“They delivered all the beams I needed for underneath the barn,” he said. “We put some temporary stabilization on the cow part, because that’s not as heavy duty as the horse side is.”

A Continuing Restoration Project

According to Eld-Harkonen, the barn “is desperate for a new roof.”

Additional work begins in spring 2021. Raising funds for the roof is the next challenge, with the Dry Creek Historical Society handling fundraising. Eld-Harkonen estimates costs of about $40,000-50,000. Contact the 501(c)(3) non-profit at drycreekhistory.org to help.

As with the Roseberry project, virtually all the help he got on the Schick barn restoration came from volunteers. He’s hoping for more help to replace the shingle roof.

Preservation Idaho

Eld-Harkonen is a board member of Preservation Idaho. The non-profit, non-governmental organization has a barn registry “where we try to get people to register all barns built in Idaho that are over 50 years old” for posterity, he said.

Thanks to the Eld-Harkonen’s continuing restoration efforts, multiple projects involving old, historical buildings will survive well into that posterity. ISI