Forest Service seeks new life for old buildings

Monday, January 18, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST
The Fuchs Home in Markham Springs, built in 1940, was sold to the U.S. Forest Service in the mid-'60s and became something of an eyesore. Forest Service officials now are on the verge of addressing the Fuchs House and four other historical properties in Mark Twain National Forest that have fallen into disrepair, seeking proposals from private individuals to potentially renovate the structures.

ST. LOUIS — When Rudy Fuchs' father built their Wayne County house in 1940, he originally envisioned it becoming a vacation resort for families to enjoy the nearby Black River as much as he did.

Instead, it became a summer home for the family, a place where Rudy would hunt and fish for bass and crappie in a small lake just in front of the two-story stone and concrete home.

After the Fuchs family sold the property at Markham Springs to the U.S. Forest Service in the mid-'60s, however, the home became something else entirely — an eyesore. In fact, Rudy, who eventually bought a farm on adjoining acreage, tried to avoid seeing his rundown former home.

"I always resented the Forest Service for neglecting it the way it did," said Fuchs, a retired mail carrier who lives about three miles from the property in Williamsville. "I always thought if they would have spent a little money on it, it wouldn't be in such terrible shape today."

Forest Service officials, however, are on the verge of addressing the Fuchs House and four other historic properties in Mark Twain National Forest that have fallen into disrepair.

The federal agency is seeking proposals from private individuals to potentially renovate the structures, all of which are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Future uses might include turning the buildings into overnight rental facilities or preserving them for educational purposes. Or perhaps they will be scrapped.

"It just really depends on what people come up with," said Kris Swanson, a Mark Twain resource manager. "The sky is really the limit here."

The move represents progress on a long-standing problem that has drawn the attention of national and state historic preservationists, forest users and longtime Ozarks residents such as the Fuchs family.

While federal agencies across the country have struggled, because of limited funding, to save historic structures, the problem is particularly acute in Mark Twain National Forest.

That's because of the sheer number of historic structures the U.S. Forest Service inherited when it acquired Mark Twain in 1939 by an act of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Given its late entry into the national forest system, much of the 1.5 million-acre swath of the Missouri Ozarks had already been settled, leaving behind a vast network of old homes, barns and businesses.

Today, Mark Twain managers use many of the structures, storing supplies in some of the old barns and using some homes as administration buildings.

Many others, however, have sat vacant, succumbing to neglect, vandals, the elements and time.

In 2004, liability concerns about the safety of the old buildings prompted Mark Twain managers to begin demolishing more than 70 buildings at about 27 sites that were not eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. That action caught the attention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which eventually placed Mark Twain's historic structures on its list of the most endangered places.

What started out as a prickly relationship between the trust and the Forest Service has evolved into a good working relationship that last year spawned an agreement which, among other things, laid out a framework for evaluating buildings being considered for demolition.

Similarly, both the trust and the state Historic Preservation Office were involved in the Forest Service's recent decision to seek proposals on the five historic properties, including the Fuchs House. The group is already circulating the request for proposals among its members.

"I think this is a good example of the Forest Service being creative to solve a problem," said Jennifer Sandy, a program officer for the trust's Midwest office. "I see it as a very positive step, and the trust has worked with the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management in the past to encourage these kind of partnerships."

Already, with help from volunteers, the Forest Service has completed renovation of the Sinking Tower Complex, a one-room cabin near a fire tower in Carter County near Doniphan.

The cabin, which the agency plans to begin renting out in the spring, will become the first overnight rental facility in Mark Twain National Forest.

"It's such a great location, right off the Ozark Trail near the Irish Wilderness Area," Swanson said. "We expect people will respond once it's placed on our national reservation system."

Other historic properties will take more work.

Swanson explained that forest managers were giving first preference to those interested in restoring the structures to their original conditions but will also consider proposals that call for relocating, stabilizing or using the buildings as salvage material.

For example, the Blount property in Washington County, which consists of a house, two barns and the former Brazil post office, is considered structurally unsound as a result of vandalism, rodent infestation and neglect.

The Fuchs House at Markham Spring is a different story.

Featuring the homestead and mill house not far from a popular recreation area, the structures are considered in fair to good condition. However, a study commissioned by the Forest Service last year estimated that renovating the property could cost as much as $331,000.

That same study suggested converting the home into an overnight rental and special events center.

Fuchs said he would support such a move. He even proposed that the homestead be turned into a bed and breakfast.

Either way, he is pleased the Forest Service is giving his former home the attention he thinks it has always deserved.

"I really enjoyed my summers out there," Fuchs said. "I think that's great if someone else gets that chance, too."


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Johnny Wed January 18, 2010 | 9:41 a.m.

This is mildly infuriating and is basically a slap in the faces of the original owners of these properties. What isn't fully expressed is the fact that these families didn't just "sell" their homes to the forest service, they were forced out. I know this because it happened to my family some 70+ years ago.
My great-grandfather homesteaded and built a beautiful farm on the Eleven Point river in Southern Missouri. He built a beautiful two-story plantation style home where he raised 9 children by scratching his life out of the earth. In 1939, representatives of the Forest Service came and informed my family that they would have to move from the home he had built by hand and that the land he had spent his life working was going to be "returned to nature."
Don't get me wrong, I completely understand and approve of saving and preserving the natural beauty of this country and the world, but proclaiming Martial Law to do so is not the right way.
The infuriating part is the fact that the Forest Service burnt my great-grandfathers beautiful home in an act of preservation not long after forcing my family out. Now it appears as though they are looking to take on a new type of preservation, but in my eyes, it's a further mockery? Is this justice? Not for my family. Instead of having a thriving and beautiful reminder of the struggles my family went through to bring us here and survive, all we are left with is a thorn patch of disappointment and resentment.
I am sorry for the long and ranting comment, I just thought it should be voiced.

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