Finicky Finney Builds Replicas of Barn – Empty Nest by Curt Swarm


Debbie and Jon Finney of Keosauqua are playing out an age-old tradition of selling the home place and moving to town for retirement.  They bought a duplex a couple blocks from downtown Keosauqua and will be closer to friends and services.  What they are leaving behind is rather unusual.  Their huge two-story farm house, built in 1898, isn’t all that unusual.  What’s unusual is the barn.  The barn also isn’t that unusual, although the Finneys have gone to great lengths to restore it and make it beautiful.  It’s the replica or replicas of the barn that Jon and his son built and are leaving behind that’s unusual.  Well, they did take one mini barn to town.  The big red barn and its replicas belong in the country.  It’s a way of preserving some of the past, when barns were an integral part of farm life.  According to Jon, so many barns are disappearing and falling into disrepair.  He wanted to do a little something to honor these barns.  He was hoping Van Buren County would become the county of restored barns, like Washington County is the county of barn quilts.  Such has not happened—yet, anyway.

            He comes by it naturally.  In 1974 Jon Finney co-founded and is president of the Douds Historic Preservation Association.  They maintain four different historic structures: the Mt. Moriah Church north of Douds, the train depot in Douds, and two country schools, one in Douds and one at Oak Grove.  He’s also on two cemetery boards.  All-in-all, he’s in 12 different organizations and is chairman or secretary of half of them.  He was secretary/treasurer of the Rotary Club for 40 years.  For 16 years he was on the Van Buren Community School District Board of Education (what an education!) that built two new schools and renovated the high school through five different bond issues.  Are you wore out yet?  Jon Finney was the Van Buren County Auditor for 43 years.  And he doesn’t even have a cell phone!  He retired exactly three years ago and will be 69 at his next birthday.

            Being attentive to detail is a good trait for a county auditor, or a model barn maker.  He built this first model barn to 15% scale of the barn on his property.  His son also got in on the act by making the barn louvers out of popsicle sticks.  The remaining four or so mini models are 15% scale of the 15% model, and are sitting around on tree stumps and various sundry places.

            But first Jon had to have the original barn lifted off its foundation and moved a few feet to a new foundation.  It was a “bank barn” or a barn that was built into a bank of dirt, or berm.  In this manner hay and feed could be stored in the top portion, and livestock fed in the

bottom.  He completely refurbished the barn.  He then chose a round concrete slab that had been the base for a bin as the pedestal for the first model barn. 

            Plein Air artists love the scene, and Jon doesn’t know how many pictures have been painted of his Big Boy and Little Boy Barn.  

            As you may have guessed, Jon Finney is a high-energy person.  Not only did he completely remodel their farmhouse but, being a self-taught carpenter, he was quite handy when it came to building a cabin on their 3 ½ acres, a play house for their two kids, a shop and an “outhouse” he uses for yard-tool storage.  He’s paid the price, too.  In the prime of his life he suffered an unexplained spontaneous lung collapse (from working too hard?).  While in the hospital at Iowa City overlooking Kinnick Stadium, he witnessed a football player suffer the same injury, only from a football hit.

            Tidbits: Both Jon and his wife Debbie are graduates of Iowa Wesleyan College in Mt. Pleasant.  Debbie was the Editor of the Van Buren County Register and Jon the County Auditor.  Editor meets Auditor.  Jon’s grandparents had a grocery store in Douds for 40 years, 1922-1962.  The door to the cabin Jon built is from the 1856 Jail in Keosauqua, purchased at auction.  Some unique features of their two-story farm house: two upstairs bedrooms have a “pass-through closet” i.e. you can enter the closet from one bedroom and walk into the other bedroom.  One downstairs room has five doors.  There are three “pocket doors” in the house—all functional.  The Finneys have a collection of political signs in the barn.  Located on Highway One, if political parties wanted to erect a political sign, they were required to leave it.

            All this the Finneys are leaving behind.  Will town life and retirement slow Jon Finney down?  The jury is still out on that one.         

Have a good story?  Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, find him on Facebook, email him at, or visit his website at

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