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Family gives Civil War-era barn new life as events center
|Written by CRAIG SPYCHALLA, Portage Daily Register|
|Tuesday, 03 July 2012 11:48|
POYNETTE, Wis. (AP) – The old bell on top of the well house would clang each time supper was ready. It was a signal to family members in the fields to come in.
The farm stretched past a hilly highway all the way to the horizon, making the bell a faint whisper to anyone working up a good day's sweat.
As horses pulled the plow, cutting the earth for another year's crops, the faint sound of that bell would make them halt.
“My dad and uncle said my great-grandmother would always go out and ring that bell,” Renee Whirry said. “My grandfather didn't hear the bell because of the distance, but (the horses) would stop. And he would know it's lunch time.”
For five generations this farm along State Highway 22 near Poynette has been in the family. And the colossal barn on the property—at the close of the Civil War—has been a landmark for travelers.
Living off this land, generations of the Stevens and Porter family found a self-sufficient way of life. There were crops, an icehouse, even an apple orchard. Everything they would need, including a pond.
“It would be interesting to see it back in the 1800s or early 1900s, being that self-sufficient,” Renee said.
While not all the buildings are left on the farm, the one thing that has remained constant is the old barn. And last year, Renee and her husband Gary decided to restore the 147-year-old structure.
Their idea was to turn the barn into a place for weddings, conventions and gatherings. Their idea was to give new life and purpose to the ultimate family heirloom.
“It was at the point it was either going to be taken down or had to be restored,” Renee said.
After an extensive year-long project, The Barn at Harvest Moon Pond opened with a wedding May 12, and summer weekends here are already filling up.
But work on the barn is never complete. There are always a few more things that can be done.
“We finished last night, I think,” Gary joked. “One hundred and fifty years and it's not done yet.”
The old barn was dark, with few windows and a lot of rooms. The place had become an attic of sorts—five generations worth of stuff stored for later use.
When Gary and Renee set out to clean the old barn to see what they had, months of work lay ahead.
“It looked like a big project, and was everything we imagined and more,” Gary said.
The barn was built in 1865 by Renee's three-times great-grandfather George Stevens. An addition was put on near the turn of the 20th century by her great-grandfather William J. Porter.
Renee said she remembers when they milked cows in the lower level that now houses bathrooms and an office.
“(This) was kind of a very beautiful historical building,” she said. “People always talked about the Porter farm.”
There was a lot of hay to remove, and memories within each object—like old horse bridles that were no longer in good shape to save.
The fieldstone and sandstone foundation was structurally sound, but needed some care.
With the help of General Engineering in Portage, a plan was put together to save this old barn and even bring back one family member's pride and joy.
The cupola on the roof of the barn, often a place for a weather vane, was the one item always taken care of.
While the rest of the barn would be in need of paint, Renee said her great-grandfather Porter would only paint the cupola. But the original needed too much repair, she said, so they built their own.
The idea to restore a barn is nothing new to Renee and Gary. About four years ago they restored a smaller barn at Gary's family farm near Marquette. Tornadoes had struck the property in the past, but left a sturdy foundation.
It was a project that would bring their children back home to help. The couple rebuilt the barn with the only intention of using the place for holidays and family parties.
Gary's sister was the first to ask to use the barn at Cedar Hill Farm, then neighbors soon followed. The first year they held six weddings there. Last year they held 28.
Inside the old Porter barn the 1800s feel alive again.
The power-washed barn boards look new and the wood plank flooring and giant stage are ready for a dance.
Antique chandeliers hang from the ceiling and plenty of windows have been added. There's even a loft where wedding ceremonies are held, with stained glass cascading light to the altar.
Restoring the barn was a big investment for Renee and Gary, who hope eventually to retire from their jobs in Madison and run the barn as a business.
A metal facade and 4 inches of foam were placed on the outside to make the facility year-round. Five furnaces, air conditioning and indoor plumbing are the only modern amenities for the structure, which seats 240.
There's also 5 acres outside that lead up to the pond that was nameless until now.
“We go to a lot of weddings and we get tired of the very small dance floors, the very stale hotel rooms,” Renee said.
The barn has old-world charm unlike anything you may ever see. You can feel the history within the walls. There's a long bar, wood fireplace and plenty of tables, with a feeling like you're in an Old West town like Deadwood.
The place couldn't have looked any better on that day in 1865 when it was completed.
“We have been meeting a lot of people who have stopped in and are curious about (the barn),” Gary said.
One of the issues the couple faces is lodging. They encourage people to stay nearby in Lodi, Portage and DeForest, and use a bus to transport people who may live outside the area.
The next project the couple is working on is marketing the facility for conferences and banquets.
Walking through the barn to hang up a coat, people may notice an old John Deere plow, the same one that was there from the days when horses tilled the land.
Renee said they also found the old bell and have plans to make it new again—letting that familiar clang echo off the landscape once again.
“I hope (the barn) lives forever now,” she said.
Information from: Portage Daily Register, http://www.portagedailyregister.com
Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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|Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 July 2012 12:26|