Matt and Julia Smith don’t mind getting a little dirty. There’s nothing about this couple that is lazy, and there’s no such thing as coaching this project from the sideline.
The Smiths are off on what they call an “adventure,” as they work to convert a large, once dilapidated barn into a venue that engaged couples will seek out for a wedding weekend. Yes, an entire wedding weekend that starts Friday, ends Sunday afternoon, and includes not just the barn, but also a stately, yet rustic and unique, four-bedroom stone house.
“Couples can set up the night before, have their rehearsal dinner here and not worry about setting up the day of the wedding,” Julia, 29, explains. “Saturday is about having a great time and the best wedding ever. They don’t have to leave that night, and they have time to break down the next day.”
Right now, the kitchen in the stone house is a break and meeting room for the project. The Smiths do not live at the Stone House Farm in Bancroft and don’t plan to. They have a house and barn 10 miles away in Lennon.
The Smiths closed on the 165-acre property on Oct. 4, about a year after first inquiring about it. It’s an investment property, with land that includes 60 tillable acres they will rent out, woods, streams, ponds, wetlands and sand.
The wedding package includes access to the property, which will offer at least three different ceremony locations. “It’s got a little bit of everything here,” says Matt, 30, while adding that it has 35 acres in the Wetland Reserve Program.
Julia is quick to chime in about the acreage. “The land is incredible, and with us both being avid hunters, it’s a dream.”
But for right now, their efforts are focused on work that needs to be done in the buildings before hosting their first wedding Sept. 22. The pace is fast, furious and ongoing, but with great attention to detail and quality craftsmanship. It’s driven by a vision.
“I want every detail looked at; I want people to be blown away,” says Matt, who has done most of the work himself, with Julia and other family members. “I want them to be so happy with their experience here that they can’t wait to tell other people about it — to recommend us.”
Inspiration for this venue started three years ago with their own wedding, which Julia describes as very “us.” She says, “We put our personal touch on it,” adding that many guests complimented the pole barn on their property, where the event was held.
The Smiths’ barn was so popular that others wanted to rent it. But the couple wanted to find another barn to use for events, and began their search about a year and a half ago.
Matt remembered a piece of property he had seen about seven years ago when he toured the Stone House Farm with a friend whose father-in-law owned the place. The barn’s location was appealing, less than 3 miles off Interstate 69 and near hotels in Durand and Owosso.
“I told Julia she had to see the size of this barn,” Matt says. Even though it wasn’t on the market, “I contacted my friend to see if the owner wanted sell.”
The wheels were in motion, and the Smiths were meticulous in taking the steps that followed.
“Some barn wedding venues involve cleaning out the backyard barn, but within a year or two they are shut down because neighbors complained,” says Matt, who grew up on a farm. “That’s not what this is.”
Julia adds, “We introduced ourselves to all the neighbors and explained what we wanted to do, and they are all very happy we’re doing this. We haven’t gotten any pushback. Many of them stop by to check in on the progress. They seem happy that we are saving this old barn.”
The owner held the property for about a year while the Smiths worked through the process, which included a public hearing, a special-use permit and the adoption of a new Shiawassee County ordinance.
The property was purchased on a land contract from Bill and Zoe Moritz, who bought the property in 1994 after five generations of Warrens lived there, starting with original homesteader, William Michael Warren.
It was a huge leap for a young couple that has full time jobs — Julia a registered nurse and Matt a mechanical engineer. But they took the leap and the reactions so far — six weddings already booked while under construction — is validating their decision.
The Smiths credit Stone House Farm General Manager Chris McGahey, for connecting with potential customers and allowing the Smiths to concentrate on construction. “He came over and said, ‘I want to be a part of this,’” Matt recounts.
McGahey, who has more than 10 years in the entertainment industry, recently became a full-time dad. “I showed up, grabbed a hammer and started ripping down boards,” McGahey says. “I worked my way in. It’s really been a blessing to jump out of the corporate world, be able to spend more time with my daughter, and yet be here and be part of this from the ground up.”
McGahey has created a buzz about the project on social media and has developed a website for potential customers.
“We wouldn’t have bookings or be on Facebook without Chris,” Julia says.
The philosophy behind Stone House Farm is an entire weekend experience for family and friends, McGahey says. “Here, family is No. 1. It’s about slowing down, treating people right and spending time with family and friends. Reaching out, communicating with people and making sure we are giving them a unique experience is my job,” says Chris, 33.
Packages includes the photo booth, bar tenders, tables and chairs, linens, ceremony locations, and two parking attendants and security guards.
After the ceremony, the couple can take a ride in a wagon pulled by an antique tractor to various photo opportunity locations on the property.
In regards to liability, Matt says they have a commercial insurance policy, but they also require renters to have their own liability insurance.
The barn rental season is May through October, and they are looking to rent the house during the week to clubs and other small groups.
In addition to the four-bedroom, 2.5-bath stone house, the property consists of the main 80-by-90-foot barn, an attached 50-by-140-foot barn (the former milk house), a cement silo and a Harvestore silo.
The house, which was built in 1854, has two fireplaces on the main floor, new appliances and a built-in, antique buffet.
“We’re not doing much on the main floor except painting,” Matt says. “But the upstairs had shag carpet, green paneling and stick-on ceiling tiles.”
The second story was gutted, and new drywall and electrical were added, as well as an upstairs bathroom off the master bedroom.
Julia envisions the bride’s room on the main floor, while the groom’s room will be in the stone basement that Matt is working on remodeling.
The stone on the house, sourced from both near and far, was added in 1933. Each piece has a uniqueness to it, and the Smiths have been told there are more than 400 tons of stone and cement in house.
The main barn was built in 1913. “When we got it, it had holes in the roof and had plain-looking and neglected steel siding,” Matt says.
Old stanchions in the ground floor of the barn are a reminder to its former use. “We’re not going to do anything with that this year,” says Matt, noting that all the wedding bliss will be happening on the second floor, the mow, of the hip-roofed barn.
The hay was pulled out and all 7,200 square feet of the mow’s floor boards were replaced. As were 84 barn beams and four joists. A pass through from the mow floor to the cement silo allows access to a landing inside the silo where a photo booth will be located.
The steel siding was replaced with pine milled by Amish that they plan to leave natural with a clear sealer. “We left the original walls so the inside still has the classic look,” Julia says.
New stone was added around the base of the barn.
About all that was saved from the attached long barn was its bones. “We ripped off all the siding, walls and roof,” Matt says. “We used the same siding to match the main barn.”
The long barn will be where the restrooms and a high-end, warming kitchen will be installed. All events will need to be catered.
To make it handicap-accessible, the Smiths built a huge ramp from the parking lot. “It’s made of interlocking cement blocks that look like huge Legos,” Matt says. “They weigh 2,500 pounds each.”
With a maximum capacity of 400 guests, the main barn is one of the larger event barns in the state.
Much progress has been and continues to be made. “We’re trying to do most of the work ourselves, but we have a deadline with the fall weddings, so if we have to, we will hire some of it done,” Matt says.
There have been some challenges, like the 60 yards of spent silage that needed to be dug out of the cement silo, and the 3 miles of fence that needed to be removed. Financially, a new septic system was an expensive item that didn’t add any glamour, and the Smiths learned a couple of months ago the fire marshal is requiring an expensive sprinkler system.
But, Matt and Julia say they have no regrets because it is a long-term investment. “We’re going to add something new every year; it’s an ongoing effort,” he says.
Julia adds, “Matt has really good vision for it. He’s got a creative brain and can do just about anything. This is our business, but our dream, too.”