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Old barn will help make new Prairie Plains Education Center building

Grand Island Independent - Mark Coddington

On the Road to a New Home

Bill and Jan Whitney may have been the only Nebraskans excited about last week's cold snap.

The frigid weather gave the area its first hard freeze of the winter, allowing the Whitneys' Prairie Plains Resource Institute to move a massive barn roof across four miles of fields to set it on top of its new education center west of Marquette.

The center has been part of the institute's plans for decades, but with the move came a sense of certainty that's been elusive throughout the planning and fundraising process.

"When that barn sits down on that foundation tomorrow, it's a reality," said Bill Whitney, a PPRI founder, during a break in the structure's move.

Making that reality happen required three days and plenty of engineering know-how.

Prairie Plains, whose headquarters are in Aurora, hired Williams Midwest Housemovers of Hastings to move the roof north from the Larry Sands farm to the site of the new center, a slow, bumpy and bizarre-looking journey.

As the roof rumbled across the frozen cornfields -- each of its huge, flat sides measuring 45 feet from peak to eave -- it was visible for miles. It was certainly a strange sight -- at first glance, it almost resembled a spaceship rising sharply out of the bleak landscape -- and it drew a parade of PPRI employees, local officials and curious neighbors.

When the roof was ready to be moved onto the foundation, its width forced Williams Midwest to perform two moves. After the first move halfway over the foundation, the beams on which the roof was rolled were shifted, and the roof was moved the rest of the way.

The roof will form the frame for a 9,000-square-foot building that will be the home base for PPRI's annual SOAR day camp, in which students explore the history and science behind prairies, rivers and Nebraska's other natural resources.

The Whitneys also foresee the building being used for lectures, school trips and retreat space for writers, artists or businesses.

Ground was broken for the building this fall, and most of the foundation was set through more than 300 volunteer hours.

Now that the foundation is set, the institute hopes to enclose the building and install some utilities over the coming months, Whitney said. He estimated that phase would cost about $50,000.

Whitney said PPRI plans to finish the center in phases, as sufficient funds come in. He hopes the final costs come in under $500,000, but a firm budget has not been set.

At the site, the awe at both the sheer scale of the move and its symbolism were evident.

Wide-eyed PPRI employees and members snatched looks inside the barn while it sat on elevated beams before its move. Others took hundreds of photos, posting many of them on the institute's new Web site at www.prairieplains.org.

Wayne Mollhoff, a PPRI board member and former Albion resident, said that watching the barn finally be moved was a surreal experience.

For years, the board had discussed a new center but always in abstract terms, he said.

"We said, 'Someday, we'll have a place where we can take people and do things, we can have kids come out, we can have grad students come research," Mollhoff said. "But it was always 'someday.'"

In addition to those feelings of amazement, Jan Whitney expressed relief at the move. If the freeze hadn't occurred, the move would have had to be delayed until next winter, bumping the project back a year.

Of course, with temperatures in the single digits during the move, she said she wouldn't mind an end to the cold spell she had so earnestly hoped for.

"Yeah, we're ready for it to warm up now," she said. 

Prairie Plains
Resource Institute

1307 L Street
Aurora, NE 68818
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