Moments before the ceremony, Savannah Koehnen sat with her bridesmaids amid the rough-hewed walls of a converted horse stall and remembered her first glimpse of the farm in Cottage Grove.
“We were engaged three years ago tomorrow,” she said. “And this place was just being created as a setting for weddings. There was no pavilion, no ‘Corn Crib Cottage,’ no plans for a honeymoon suite in a tree house. But it was already everything I wanted — big, open, comfortable, simple.”
It’s a choice more and more are making — and not just for weddings.
An urban society increasingly detached from the serenity of the countryside is seeking out a taste of the Upper Midwest’s rural past, fueling a boom in the commercialization and revival of once-decaying or threatened barns and farmyards. It’s a trend that some find enchanting, others perplexing and still others — notably, the longtime neighbors who got there first — find downright maddening.
“I love the idea of preserving old barns,” Lake Elmo City Councilwoman Julie Fliflet said recently as a heated zoning fight over another proposed wedding barn simmered in that city. “But this decision is a huge struggle for me. It’s a pretty big business for a rural residential area.” Added colleague Jill Lundgren: “These issues tear neighborhoods apart.”
Brides and grooms scrolling through websites like Pinterest, with images of candlelit barns, are helping turn muddy old properties into busy venues as the millennial generation moves into its marital phase.
“We just moved in in October and started on the barn in March,” said Monique Wallis, of Bloom Lake Barn near Taylors Falls. “But already it’s been kind of a whirlwind. We are booked all through 2016. We don’t have any Saturdays left!”
The fervor startles the feed-caps-and-overalls crowd.
“The old-timers around here, people who actually farm, just shake their heads at all this,” said Jill Preugschas, of the Deer Lake Orchard wedding barn, near exurban Buffalo. “But the truth is, people are trying to get back to how we used to live, 100 years ago. They’re using sliced logs and making burlap table runners and putting them under Mason jars full of wildflowers and baby’s breath.”
The owners of some farms say they never dreamed anyone would consider their barns cool until someone nudged them into hosting a wedding — and the word spread.
“The most surprising thing to me so far,” said Britni Nordine, whose family runs the Legacy Hill Farm in Welch, “is the huge percentage of brides, 30 to 40 percent, who live out of state. … A lot of them maybe grew up in the Midwest or have family here and they’re finding us.
“Their friends fly in from all over the country and it’s incredible how much spending they do — at wineries, hotels, breweries, even Red Wing Shoes. One couple got each other boots as gifts.”
Too much commotion
Dollar signs spin for folks like Kellie Sites, president of the Waconia Chamber of Commerce, who last year urged for more generous conditions for a rural winery despite pleas from neighbors that an event center with alcohol served to crowds at all hours is not what they signed up for.
Pam Schulz said she has suffered more noise “in the past two years than she has in all 38 years of living at that address.”
In semirural Grant, near Stillwater, Melinda Lopes complained last year that she moved from Chicago to the rural fringes of the Twin Cities “to raise a family away from busy streets, noise and lights.”
To her surprise, the barn nearby was a venue for parties loud enough to cause the southern end of her home to vibrate.
Still, in an era when fewer and fewer people have any connection with farming, the rustic wedding is a big trend. A boutique on Grand Avenue in St. Paul features in its display windows three books on the topic, set amid rows of cowboy boots.
The Twin Cities area is well suited for such things. Here, “rural” begins at proximity to the inner metro. A Washington County barn boasts that you can see the downtown St. Paul skyline from its farmyard.
Some, however, want to keep things looking rural even if it’s an illusion. Afton forbids B&Bs from erecting a sign out front.
A classic point of conflict is whether to force property owners to pave parking areas when grass and gravel give off a more rural vibe. Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey two years ago sympathized with a couple’s wish to not desecrate a 159-year-old farmstead in that way. The “whole ambience,” he said, “is the barn and the fields.”
The closer to town, the more intense the scrutiny. Bruentrup Heritage Farm in Maplewood was restricted at first to no more than 15 weddings a year, said Nicole DeGuzman, executive director of the group that runs the farm.
“The city was hesitant over commotion and traffic concerns,” she said. “But last year we asked for 40 and got approved. We’re lucky to have weddings. It’s our main revenue stream as a nonprofit. I have this job thanks to weddings. But a lot of farmers who want to do it are finding they can’t because of regulations.”
Farmers far from cities seldom report conflicts.
“Some of these ‘farms’ are make-believe farms that haven’t been farmed forever,” snorts David Deglman, of the Historic Deglman Farm, near Princeton, 60 miles from downtown Minneapolis.
“We are real rural. You can see from our deck probably 5 to 6 miles of open fields and trees. There were weddings at this farm in the ’30s, so it’s not anything new for country folks. But the metro people, wanting to grab that piece of history, that’s the new part.
“And no, it’s not an issue for our neighbors. The nearest one is my own brother!”
Making a statement
Beth Montemurro, a sociologist at Penn State-Abington, said she sees the barn trend as a reaction to lavishness: what’s been called “Bridezilla and her chocolate fountains.”
“There was a backlash against excessiveness and indulgence,” she said. “Couples are making a statement about who they are.”
Koehnen felt that way in the converted horse paddock as she waited to be led across a pasture to the crowd of 260 gathered at Glen Hope Farm. Although her husband is from New York and they briefly moved east, “I’m a Minnesota girl who will live here forever,” she said. The setting, she added, spoke to her spiritually.
Paula Bushilla, the owner of Hope Glen Farm, hosted 70 weddings in 2013, her first year, 87 last year and 98 so far this year. She has been careful to maintain diplomatic relations.
“If a stranger bought this, there’s no way we would have support,” she said. “But the neighbors knew us for 12 years. The DJs that know what they’re doing don’t abuse the volume — it’s rookies who think they have to blow the roof off.
“We offer free weddings and grad parties to neighbors who are affected by us. If the neighbors don’t support you, there’s no business.”