Family's legacy lives in cinematic barn-raising

April 26, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

His Dutch ancestors erected Charlie Obert's barn on a farm in Crawford County, northwestern Pennsylvania, some time in the early 19th century. Some time in the late 20th century, Charlie Obert's grandson took the barn apart with the idea of turning it into a new house on Maryland's Eastern Shore, 426 miles away. And sometime in the early 21st century - about six months ago - the grandson finished a delightful documentary film that tells the whole story.

The documentary was years in the making.

The house still isn't quite finished.

But that's OK. Labors of love, like the families that inspire them, have a tendency to go on and on - and in the Oberts' case, it took six generations of farmers and one generation of filmmaker to get the story to this point.

Kurt Kolaja's film, Charlie Obert's Barn, is a gem that the Maryland Film Festival will screen next month. It chronicles the barn's abandonment, its disassembly and its reincarnation as a house for duppies (displaced urban professionals) on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Kolaja is smart and experienced with the camera, but he's also a witty writer. His prose style walks up to folksy then backs off before it's too late. His name is Kolaja (pronounced Ko-lie-ya), after all, not Keillor.

Now for the disclaimer: I have known Kurt Kolaja long enough that I am still allowed to call him Skippy.

It seems to me that he has been working on the documentary about his grandfather's barn since the mid-1980s, when I first knew him, but it turns out the project has been in Kolaja's mind's eye longer than that.

Indeed, some moving images of the late Charlie Obert appear in the documentary briefly; these scenes of the old dairy farmer were shot on film in the 1970s, back when Kolaja worked for a TV station in Erie, Pa., and the promise of "Film at 11!" was real.

Kolaja, still as playful and as mischievous as a teenager, is old enough to have straddled the film-video-digital generations of television news. All forms of motion picture appear in Charlie Obert's Barn.

When I first met Kolaja, he was shooting news and sports video in Baltimore for WBAL-TV, back in its Action News days. ("Look for us, we'll be there/ Action News is everywhere/ from the Allegany Mountains, down to the Eastern Shore ...")

He moved to other TV news jobs and, eventually, to the freelance market. For a time, he specialized in shooting those friends-you-can-turn-to commercials for TV news operations around the country, from Atlanta to Altoona. (In Altoona, Kolaja once made a promotion for a TV station attached to a pretzel factory.)

We have kept in touch for years. He, his wife and daughter left Baltimore in the 1990s and they ended up buying waterfront land in Chestertown. It was around that time that I started hearing about the barn and the house, Kolaja's opus.

This was all part of his effort to preserve something that easily could have been lost - his grandfather's barn, a hemlock-and-oak heirloom up in Crawford County, near Lake Erie.

Charlie Obert was the real deal, a dairy farmer who did not own a car and hardly ever left his cows. When he and his wife had to visit nearby family on a holiday, they went by Farmall tractor.

What happened to the Obert farm in the years after Charlie's death in 1983 was typical: An heir decided to sell it. There would not be a seventh generation of Obert farmers, a fact that caused some hard feelings in the family, deftly documented by Kolaja.

The new owners, who planned to turn the Obert place into a nursery and Christmas tree farm, wanted no part of the old barn. They intended to tear it down.

That's when Kurt Kolaja decided to save it - or at least save what was salvageable.

Using pieces of the old barn to build a new house became his dream.

He hooked up with a Pennsylvania architectural preservationist and carpenter named Gary Coburn, and Coburn agreed to take the barn apart for future use.

Kolaja figures Coburn was able to save about 80 percent of the old framing, most of it hemlock and poplar timbers that had been hewn by hand nearly 200 years ago and locked together with wooden pegs. A lot of the siding was set aside for use as cabinets and doors in Kolaja's new house. In all, about 3,000 square feet of Charlie Obert's Barn went to the Eastern Shore.

Coburn's craftsmanship made the new house possible; he cut and fit the salvaged timbers and he raised the frame in place on Kolaja's property in Chestertown. Few other contractors wanted anything to do with the project; they did not find it interesting or challenging, and gave firm refusal to the opportunity.

My old friend Kurt Kolaja ended up doing a lot of the interior carpentry himself, and he documented the whole thing with his cameras. The result is an amusing and happy film - and a pretty good house.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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