GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- West Virginians Don and Claudia Harmon marveled at the renovated stone "summer kitchen" on the George Spangler farm, which was the scene of fierce fighting during the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.
"This farm is just so great. It's amazing," said Mr. Harmon, wearing a bright gold-and-blue Mountaineer jacket and baseball hat. "I really enjoy history and admire the craftsmanship that builders used back then. It's intricate and well done -- very impressive."
On Friday, the Harmons were among 15 people on the first bus that brought visitors to walk around the Spangler Farm, 80 acres on the eastern edge of the Gettysburg National Military Park, 2 miles south of the park's Visitors Center and Museum.
The farm, where wheat and oats were growing in the fields when the battle raged between Northern and Southern forces July 1-3, was bought in 2008 for $1.8 million by the Gettysburg Foundation, a nonprofit that works with the National Park Service to maintain and improve the battlefield and promote tourism.
The foundation and park service are working to restore the battlefield to the way it looked that July as they get ready for several million people to visit for the 150th anniversary of the battle this year.
The four buildings on the property -- a large barn made of stone and wood, the Spangler family's stone house, the summer kitchen next to the house and a small wooden smokehouse used to preserve meats -- were in terrible shape when the property was purchased in 2008, said Randy Grimsley, a Gettysburg Foundation volunteer and guide. The restoration work will take another four years or so and cost several million more.
Steel cables had to be installed inside the old barn or it likely would have collapsed, Mr. Grimsley said. Red-painted plywood has been erected on much of the outside of the barn until a new wooden exterior is finished. Pointing with new mortar will go between the large stones of the barn. He said that when the foundation first acquired the old barn, 4 feet of manure, topped by weeds, covered the floor.
"We also had to rip a shed off the side of the barn and a nearby shed used to slaughter deer because they weren't part of the farm during the Battle of Gettysburg," he said.
So far, only the summer kitchen has been fully renovated. An old metal roof was replaced with wooden shingles, the interior floor replaced, and the exterior stones were repointed. The Harmons and others on the first tour were impressed.
"It's so beautiful and historic," Ms. Harmon said. "We live near Morgantown and we've been to Gettysburg before, but we've never seen this farm, so it's great to be among the first people to visit here."
The stone kitchen, where foods were cooked over a large fire, was separate from the family's house in case the fire got out of hand, Mr. Grimsley said.
Equally impressed was another first-day couple, Michael and Manda Adams, who had driven from their home near Indianapolis.
"The guides said they were really worried about losing the barn when Hurricane Sandy came through last fall with heavy winds," Mr. Adams said. "They said it wouldn't have lasted if they hadn't stabilized it" with steel cables.
Spangler Farm opened Memorial Day weekend and will be available for tours each Friday to Sunday, through Aug. 11. Shuttles to the farm run 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free, but visitors must get bus tickets at the visitors center.
On July 4, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., National Park Service rangers will hold a special anniversary program at the Spangler Farm, describing Civil War medicine and the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg.
In summer 1863, the farm served as a field hospital for wounded and dying soldiers. The Spangler site is one of the nation's few Civil War field hospitals to resemble its wartime state.
About 1,800 soldiers were treated at the barn for gunshots and other wounds sustained during the battle. A Confederate general, Lewis Armistead, was shot during fighting on the farm and died July 5 at the summer kitchen. About 185 Union soldiers and 20 Confederates also died in fighting at the farm.
After the battle, the Spanglers asked the federal government to reimburse them for $2,700 in damage to the farm. They ended up getting just $60, said Gettysburg Foundation member and volunteer Dan Welch.
The deaths of the many Northern and Southern soldiers eventually led, in 1868, to a new national holiday -- Decoration Day -- on the last Monday in May. Soldiers' graves in Arlington National Cemetery and beyond were decorated with flowers. The name of the holiday was later changed to Memorial Day.
During the tour Friday, Mr. Welch dressed in the blue uniform of a Union soldier and led visitors around the Spangler farm. In character, he recounted the story of a Union soldier named Richard Enderlin, a member of an Ohio regiment. He received the Medal of Honor for bravery after dragging his friend, a wounded Ohio soldier named George Nixon, off the battlefield July 2.
Nixon, who died of his injuries a few days later, was the great-grandfather of President Richard M. Nixon. Mr. Welch said Richard Nixon came to Gettysburg in the 1950s, when he was vice president, to lay a wreath on his ancestor's grave in the nearby National Military Cemetery.
Tom Barnes: 717-623-1238. First Published May 27, 2013 4:00 AM