Nobody knows for sure whether the barn that once stood on the flanks of Chinsegut Hill was built by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.
But there's no doubt it was beautiful, extremely large and, by Florida standards, quite old. There's also no doubt that it's gone for good, having been reduced to a patch of rubble last week by the current owner, the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The department had little choice, said Chad Chase, the acting director of the USDA's Subtropical Agricultural Research Station north of Brooksville. The leaky old barn, which in recent years had been used strictly for storage, was a hazard to his workers. They could have been beaned by chunks of ceiling weakened by water damage; rotting floorboards made it unsafe to walk on the second floor. Replacing the roof — just the first of many steps needed for a complete renovation — would have cost at least $65,000, Chase said.
And, stunning as this is to hear about a public agency these days, the research station is pretty much broke.
Funding to keep it running is not included in President Barack Obama's proposed budget for next year. U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Spring Hill, did manage to get $1.3 million in operating expenses in the House of Representatives' agricultural appropriations bill, but that bill has been stuck in the Senate for months.
Meanwhile, Chase said, he's in extreme belt-tightening mode, not filling two empty researcher positions. If the station takes on any rehab jobs, it will be to fix the collapsing feed lot, which is unusable now and is needed for basic research.
Okay, but I remember touring the old barn two years ago — being amazed at the heart-pine beams, the tongue-and-groove flooring and the view of the county's most scenic valley from the gymnasium-size hayloft.
It might not be part of the collection of CCC buildings on the property, I was also told at the time, but it just might be. Nobody had been able to document its date of construction.
It would have been nice to do so before destroying it. And whether the barn was built during the Depression or a few years later, as Chase thinks is more likely, it would have helped tell the story of the station and of Chinsegut Hill's former owners, Raymond and Margaret Robins, who donated this land for agricultural research.
After decades of experimenting with South American breeds, the focus of the current research at the station is on improving Brahman cattle. There's a lot of enthusiasm among ranchers for the project, Chase said. He thinks it will be a big success.
Maybe so. But considering Brahmans have been established in this country for nearly a century, it doesn't seem like ground-breaking work. If you had a debt of $14 trillion or so, which this country does, and you were looking for places to cut, which it is, you could see why the station might be a candidate.
But maybe it would have a stronger argument for funding if its 3,800 acres were used for more than just studying cattle. Maybe if some of its old CCC buildings were part of a historic tour, if trails on the edges of its pastures could be linked to other remnants of the Robins' former estate such as Chinsegut Hill, Chinsegut Nature Center and the Big Pine Tract …
Maybe if the USDA could talk about the tourist dollars it's bringing in, of its importance to the region's heritage. …
And maybe if the voting public had been allowed to see and fall in love with the place. …
Then a few more people in Washington might pay attention.
Nobody's asking the USDA to stop research — other than, maybe, politicians who deny it funding. It just seems reasonable to ask for a little more cooperation from the department with the other agencies that occupy former Robins' properties.
Sure, even coordinating these different groups seems like an overwhelming job at a time when there's so little money for anything, when nobody has committed to saving the 162-year-old Manor House at Chinsegut Hill, much less an old barn.
But it's a worthy long-term goal. And it's an encouraging sign that Audubon of Florida has expressed interest in managing the Manor House and hasn't ruled out trying to link its use with other properties.
If we're lucky, the next time somebody decides a beautiful old building on Chinsegut Hill needs to be torn down, Audubon will be part of the conversation.