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Shawn Raecke, Idaho Statesman/Associated Press
Antique bottles line a window of a house that Kerry Moosman restored in Atlanta. Moosman teaches pottery classes and creates earthenware pots that are sold through art galleries.

ATLANTA, Idaho — As a child, Kerry Moosman loved to visit an eccentric old couple who lived across the street in Atlanta, a former mining boom town that sits high in the mountains near the scenic Sawtooth wilderness.

His mother didn't approve of his visits to the strange people who kept to themselves, but Moosman couldn't stay away from their little wooden house stuffed to the rafters with odds and ends.

"These people were very interesting," he said. "They had a big junk collection, and their outbuildings were piled with moldy old stuff. I loved that."

He carries on in the tradition of that old couple today in the town where his grandfather settled in 1931 to work in the mines. Moosman lives in tiny Atlanta during the summer and fall, putting his prodigious energy to work collecting, restoring and preserving the town's history.

The rest of the year, Moosman, a 1975 graduate in ceramics and sculpture at Boise State University, lives in Boise, about 98 miles southwest of Atlanta, where he teaches pottery classes and creates beautiful, hand-built earthenware pots that are sold through art galleries.

For 35 years, the artist has kept old homes, barns, shops, even the town jail from sinking under the weight of time, age and weather. He gets a little help from his friends, an eclectic group of artists, musicians, dancers and others who have made Atlanta an artists' enclave of sorts.

Moosman's labor of love extends as well to Rocky Bar, a ghost town 16 miles from Atlanta over a steep mountain pass. Founded in 1863, Rocky Bar is a small collection of falling-down buildings that appeals perfectly to his unusual eye for real estate. He owns a clapboard house, Masonic lodge and a former saloon there, though their deteriorating condition is so bad that Moosman is not sure the buildings can be saved.

"I'm just a big junk collector," said the self-effacing, fifth-generation Idahoan. "My interest is in the real early days, the pioneer days."

The preservation spark ignited when Moosman realized that Atlanta's future might not be to his liking.

"It became apparent that everything old and historic was threatened, and Atlanta would turn into every other place you go," he said. "I started saving as much as I could."

He and other Atlanta residents got the town's historic core listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1970s and received grants from the Idaho Heritage Trust to restore the jail, a log house and the Pioneer Cemetery.

With change in the wind, however, Moosman grew concerned that buildings he considered valuable were threatened, so he started saving them himself.

"I've been throwing myself in front of bulldozers for a long time," he said with the quiet chuckle that frequently punctuates his sentences.

Steve Guerber, executive director of the Idaho State Historical Society, appreciates efforts by people like Moosman because his agency is perennially short of funds to save historic structures.

"Anything that an individual does that recognizes the historical significance of a site and takes it upon themselves to do preservation work, obviously we like to see those things happening," Guerber said.

Born in 1951, Moosman went to school in Atlanta's little schoolhouse (now a community hall) through the third grade before moving with his parents to Boise in 1959. He spent summers in Atlanta with his grandparents, exploring nearby forests, frog ponds and, especially, old abandoned buildings.

He now lives in the odd old couple's house, one of his first projects, which he began restoring in 1976. His first house burned down that same year.

Five years ago he bought a 1941 building in the tiny downtown on Atlanta's main dirt road. The Atlanta Club, complete with a dance floor, had sat empty for 15 years.

He cleared out the garbage, fixed the plumbing and other basic services and filled it with his collectibles, from photos and records chronicling the lives of former town residents to tools and dishes from days gone by.

Now he is hanging out in the Atlanta Club again, gathering with the friends who make up a small but tight-knit group within the Atlanta community.

"It does end up being a bit like a camp," said Curtis Stigers, a Boise jazz musician. "We all end up having dinner together."

People have drifted in and out of "the Kerry universe" in Atlanta over the years, Stigers said, and everybody has their own reasons for being there. His wife caught the restoration bug from Moosman and spends many of her days with a hammer in hand, but Stigers goes to relax, play his guitar, cook, play with his daughter and soak up the vibe.

"Atlanta is a hell of a place to take a nap — it may be the best place in America," he said with a laugh.