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Passerby with extinguisher saves historic Indiana barn

By STAN MADDUX

LA PORTE, Ind. — An Indiana couple is extremely grateful to a passerby with a fire extinguisher, for preventing their historic red barn from going up in flames.

“To stop and take action, I can't thank him enough," said Shelby Moravec.

She and her husband, Mark Kurth, own the old Forrester Farm near Indiana Route 2 and 100 South about five miles west of La Porte in the northwestern part of the state. The property, including the barn and two-story brick farmhouse built in 1856, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The barn, erected in 1917, is also on the list of the 200 most historic barns in Indiana.

On Jan. 9, Jeff Jentzen said he was making the 30-mile drive home from work at Circle R Mechanical in Portage when out of the corner of his eye he saw flames flickering on the north side of the barn. He stopped and grabbed a fire extinguisher from his company-owned truck just as the smoldering flames seemed ready to take off.

After emptying the extinguisher, he ran over to the stately-looking home and knocked on the front door. Moravec, doing some bookkeeping in her home office on the second floor, said she had no idea the barn had caught fire; she grabbed an extinguisher from inside the barn and gave it to Jentzen, a former member of the Coolspring Township Volunteer Fire Department.

Firefighters doused what little of the flames were still burning when they arrived. The barn probably would have gone up like matchsticks, had another 10 minutes gone without the fire being noticed, said Scipio Township Fire Chief Eric Fenstermaker.

"I think we would have had a totally different situation," he added.

Fenstermaker said the minimal damage was confined mostly to the door frame and a piece of the exterior wood siding. Moravec said the flames had just burned through a section of the siding and started climbing up the outside wall when Jentzen came along.

Inside the barn were two restored Triumph motorcycles from 1968 and 1972, along with a 1957 Allis-Chalmers tractor still in its original condition. "We dodged a major bullet," Moravec said.

Jentzen did what he felt he had to do. “It was meant to be,” he said.

Fenstermaker said the cause of the fire appeared to be electrical in nature.

James Forrester came to the United States from Ireland in 1818 and in 1834, arrived in Michigan City, Ind., where he built a warehouse for merchandising salt, sugar, glass and other items, said LaPorte County historian Fern Eddy Schultz.

Forrester later acquired farmland near Indiana State Prison, then in 1837 sold all of his holdings and purchased the property in Scipio Township where he spent the remainder of his life. His family lived in a log cabin until the English Manor-style farmhouse was built, Schultz added.

Forrester served two terms in the state legislature after the Civil War. Schultz said he and his wife, Lavina, were attending the Indiana State Fair in 1880 when they both died from gas believed to have escaped from a defective pipe in a room.

Schultz wasn't sure what was raised on the property but said farms in those days here grew predominantly corn. Kurth said hogs were also raised there, judging by receipts from stockyards found in the attic. The foundation of a hog barn also remains on the property, he said.

The house was empty for about 10 years before he and Moravec moved in more than three years ago following an extensive renovation. Restoration of the barn was completed on the structure’s 100th anniversary.

Kurth said the farmland surrounding the house was sold to other buyers. The couple operates a large vegetable garden to grow food for their own use. He also restores antique cars and motorcycles in a garage behind the barn used to store vehicles, once refurbished, along with equipment used to maintain the property.

He doesn't minimize Jentzen’s actions, knowing old barns with so much old dry timber often don't survive a fire. “I feel extremely lucky. It doesn't usually work out that way, right. Usually they go," Kurth said.

1/22/2019