-- Surely there were days like this 156 years ago -- the sky a pure blue billowing over virgin green fields, a breeze clear and cool riffling the trees, a good day for hard work.

It might have been a day like this back then in the Town of Centerville, Wis., when men stripped bark from long straight logs and nearly grown boys sawed boards, helping Godlieb and Fredrika Lutze build an all-in-one building -- house at one end, barn at the other -- for their family in their new world.

And on that day, the dinner bell must have rung, and the men and boys joined the women at a long table laden with corn, sauerkraut, homemade pickles and bread. And as they ate, they admired the work they had done and planned the work yet to do.

There was a day just like thisin late August for the new family that owns not the deed but the soul of the old building. The fifth and sixth generation of Lutzes were there, working and eating side by side with the first generation of the new family, the volunteers rebuilding the crumbling walls of the house barn by hand, just as the first Lutze family had built it so long ago.

Michael Yaker knew he loved timber framing, but he only found out how much when he started working on the house barn.

"It's a powerful presence," he said. "You see what it takes to hold a building up. Often, you have wide-open spaces with large timbers, and it tends to give a soaring feeling. The aesthetics are in no way separated from engineering and the structure."

Yaker has been involved in construction for years, and for the past five has owned a DeForest, Wis.-based timber frame construction company, Wood Joiners. But modern techniques don't hold a candle to the craftsmanship of the house barn, he said.

"In modern construction, they're whipped up as fast as can be done," he said. "In 20 years, nobody will say, 'Hey, look at this, it's a house worth saving.' "

To him and the others who sink their hands into the fiber of the house barn, its restoration is the best way to honor the work of fellow builders of generations past, who erected timber frame house barns in Europe 600 years ago.

When the first Wisconsin Lutzes, en route from the homeland to a new home undetermined, heard a snatch of Saxon German spoken in Centerville, they stopped looking and bought 80 acres. They built what they knew, and what they knew was the only kind of house approved by the Saxon rulers, who dictated the details of houses and buildings then just as firmly as building inspectors do today.

Instead of conduit and pipes and insulation, medieval building standards called for strong timbers for frames. Wood being scarce in Germany back then, the space between the framing timbers had to be filled with something else, which ended up being a mixture of clay, sand and chopped straw, resulting in the half-timbered style reinterpreted endlessly in 20th century suburban developments with Dryvit and stucco.

The house barn was built bigger than those in Germany, because in America they had the space, but in every other construction detail it was precisely like those in Germany. Mortise and tenon joints. Six-over-six paned windows. The chiseled surfaces of the interior beams were smoothed with plaster.

The inside walls were speckle-painted sky blue over the white plaster, in the main room and most of the second-story bedrooms. Some of the exposed wood framing was painted red and a wide-toothed comb was run through the paint in waves. A band of curlicue stenciling in red pirouetted across a stretch of wall in a space probably used as a receiving room.

The family lived in the east end of the house and the animals lived in the west end, cows on the first floor of the barn and chickens on the second.

Godlieb and Fredrika Lutze left no journals, diaries or heirlooms -- only the house barn and what the local census-taker knew of them. But as the crew members today work on the house, they feel that they get to know the Lutzes with every stone they replace in the foundation.

The Lutzes' second son, August, extended the barn in 1884. He poured a concrete floor and stoop for it, and chickens ran in the wet cement, leaving 100-year-old footprints. He built a whole new barn, too, and then a yellow-brick Victorian farmhouse in 1896.

When August Lutze's family moved into the yellow brick house, the house barn became just a barn.

A plow was stored there. Harnesses. Old chairs and farm tools. Junk. Vines started to grow and saplings sprouted from the fieldstone foundation. Some of the foundation washed away. The house barn started to sag a little, like a chair sat in too long.

More Lutzes were born, including Janet in 1943 and Richard in 1959.

They played in the old barn as the glass in its windows went wavy and plaster started to fall in bits from the walls and ceiling.

In 1982, the family held a garage sale, hauling stuff from the barn to sell. Some historians from the University of Wisconsin came to the sale, but they were more interested in the barn than the antiques.

The house barn was one of only 12 in the country, the family now believes, and one of three constructed with "fachtwerk," the clay plaster half-timbering. The building was just like those made in Germany in every detail, right down to the method of marking the beams when they were cut to match and fit them into place when the walls went up.

Being overlooked was its salvation, said Jim R. Draeger, an architectural historian with the Wisconsin Historical Society. Buildings that are used are remade to fit each new purpose, and they become a bit less original along the way.

In any event, the Lutzes wondered what they were to do with this old barn, suddenly on the National Register of Historic Places.

Just stopping the deterioration of the barn would cost $250,000, they were told.

"We were just married, and this was what we had in our pockets," said Sarah Lutze, who married Richard in 1983, pulling out the white lining of her jean pocket.

So they gave the barn what they could -- the land it sat on and then some -- forming a nonprofit, Centreville Settlement Inc., to legally protect the barn.

Word got out slowly about the Rip van Winkle house barn, and volunteers started to come to see it, and to help. It took two years to clear the overgrowth from the barn and the crew has been rebuilding it by hand ever since.

The project attracted those who like old buildings, who see romance in beams and worship through hard work.

Just to reconstruct the walls involves no trips to the local home supply superstore, but a summer's worth of mixing, chopping, smoothing, filling and waiting.

They chop barley hay and mix up the plaster and set about nogging -- packing the stuff between the staves in the open framed walls, from the inside out, a few inches at a time, letting it dry and shrink in between.

A few barley seeds always stray into the straw and finding themselves in the warm, wet plaster, they sprout, springing from the wall. As the wall dries, so do they, and when the barley sprouts are brittle and break, the nogging is dry.

Nothing prefabricated arrives on trucks, and nothing is made in a factory. It is, said Cedarburg architect Charlie Simonds, just people working together mixing clay.

"There's a lot of labor involved, so it's good to have as many people as you can," he said. "There's mixing materials, carrying them to the wall and putting them up to the wall. It's part of the tradition of building, coming by and helping a farmer put up a timber framed building."

It didn't take long for Wisconsin settlers to disavow the old-world virtues of the house barn and start building detached barns.

"Bugs, fires, smell, slop -- all of that spelled no need for house barns," said Donald J. Berg, a Long Island architect who specializes in historic buildings and author of "American Country Building Design."

Not that people don't keep rediscovering them.

Berg said he gets "a call a week" from horse owners who want a plan for a building with stables below and a house above. Health codes prevent modern house barns from being built, "but the notion of being close to animals is popular again," he said.

Some day, the last peg will be tamped into the Lutze house barn, the last stone wedged into place, the last stroke of oxblood paint brushed on.

That will be Janet Lutze's cue to introduce the crew to what's in the other big barn.

It's not so much the barn itself, built in 1884 and much like many other Wisconsin barns, but what's inside: a gift from a neighbor, an entire log cabin disassembled, lying in a careful pile. It's old. It might even be older than the house barn. But nobody knows, not yet.

Chris Kuehnel, left, guides a chainsaw that is pulled along by 88-year-old volunteer Vern Wernecke while turning a 3-ton white oak tree into a 34-foot-long sill.Volunteer Charlie Bauer shapes an open mortise on a beam that will be used to shore up the root cellar.Janet Lutze stands on the second floor of the family's house barn. The three-story structure was built in 1849.