BARRON — Jeff Church’s 55th birthday a few years ago caused him and his wife, Billie, to pause and take a closer look at what they might do after retirement.
The then-owners of Skippy’s Bar in Barron first considered opening a winery or distillery, but they knew the learning curve would be a steep one.
“We know how to drink it, but we don’t know how to make it,” Billie joked.
Finally, they decided to combine their interests in agriculture and hospitality and open a wedding barn that they hope will provide a good income for their golden years. They aptly named the facility The Church Barn.
“We knew if people were starting to talk about it ... they would start calling it The Church Barn,” said Billie, 49. “Hopefully, this gets us all the way through retirement. We stuck all our eggs in this basket.”
But maybe as much as the promise of steady retirement income, she said, they love being part of each couple’s celebration.
“That’s the fun part, being part of somebody’s big day,” she said. “It’s neat to be part of that. It’s more fulfilling than I thought it would be.”
While most wedding barns take shape inside existing barns that have been heavily renovated, the Churches knew it wouldn’t be cost-effective to renovate the dilapidated relic on their property.
“The foundation and roof were bad,” said Billie, who grew up on a nearby dairy farm.
The old barns were built to hold livestock, not people, she said, so new construction made sense for them. They demolished the old barn, saving some boards and other items, and built a completely new one. Part of the old barn remains as storage.
“I don’t think anybody’s as crazy as us,” Billie admits.
But starting from scratch had its advantages; it gave them the freedom to build the barn just the way they wanted, with all the modern amenities such as easy handicap accessibility and a walk-in refrigerator.
They also could wire it exactly as they saw fit, including adjustable lighting and electrical plug-ins in the walls and floors throughout.
One downside to a lot of wedding barns, Billie said, is low occupancy. The Church Barn can fit 270 people on one floor.
Although it’s a new structure, the Churches held on to some pieces of the past, repurposing a cupola for a skylight, turning half of a milk tank into a beer taps box and hanging an old hay elevator from the rafters. Old tin salvaged from a pole shed lives out a second life as part of bar, and stainless-steel milkers contain plants.
“We wanted to keep the rustic and barn look,” Billie said.
The historic items also bring generations together, she said, as grandparents reminisce about their days on the farm.
The Churches also built their barn, located four miles from Barron, for the future, incorporating tall ceilings and spacious barn doors that could be attractive to a cash-grain farmer or fabrication shop owner with large equipment.
“We didn’t want to be pigeon-holed,” Billie said. “I don’t know how long the barn thing will be the hot item. ... We’re not going to leave our kids with a wedding barn if they don’t want it.”
A lot like farming
The Churches bought their farm about 18 years ago from the bank and have made many improvements through the years, including a new house, tree planting and the removal of several aged outbuildings.
For many years, they raised crops and beef cattle while operating their tavern in town. But they knew they couldn’t keep up that dogged pace forever, and the bar clientele kept getting younger.
“It was just a lot,” Billie said.
After 25 years of ownership, they sold their bar about a year ago. They also sold the cattle and began renting out their cropland.
“It kind of all fell together,” Billie said.
They began construction on their new barn in fall 2016, but first, they had to rent some big equipment and bring in loads upon loads of dirt to raise the entire area by 10 feet. Framing-in was completed just before winter settled in.
The restrooms feature a grain bin look, with elegance built in for the ladies and handy beer holders installed for the guys. The Churches are still working to finish trim and baseboard and the bridal suite.
With their soft opening last September, they sought recommendations from caterers and others for creating the perfect bridal suite. Brides often want a variety of places for photo opportunities, they were told, so all four walls in the suite will be different, from reclaimed barn board to birch logs cut into disks to mirrors for a more formal setting.
Last fall, they hosted three weddings and the Barron High School Homecoming dance. They have booked about a dozen weddings for the 2018 season and already are looking ahead to 2019. The Homecoming dance drew record attendance, Billie said, and they are set to host the BHS prom this spring.
While Billie manages the event barn and still works at Skippy’s in the off-season, Jeff drives truck for Federated Co-op Transport.
Owning an event barn is a lot like farming, she said. It’s long days, weekends and evenings and closely watching weather forecasts. They prepare for the worst but hope for the best, and in case of a power outage, a back-up generator is on hand to run the entire facility.
“It’s a wedding, so we want it to be perfect,” she said.
While their past experiences in business for themselves helped, Billie said it’s important for anyone considering opening a wedding barn to be well-organized and persistent through the lengthy zoning process. She said she’s in favor of the event barn legislation moving through the Wisconsin Legislature, which was spurred on by this popular trend.
“It will regulate barns so they all will be held to a standard, which is good,” she said.
While The Church Barn now is buttoned up for the winter, the Churches are happy to show it to prospective couples any time. The barn is available for rent between April and October, and the cost is $2,500 per day.
“We don’t have hidden fees; we’re trying to be all-inclusive,” Billie said. “We keep it simple.”
The Churches provide two licensed bartenders; access to the entire property, through which the Yellow River runs; and tables and chairs. Families are free to arrange the barn to their liking and bring in their own decorations. Magnets work well for sticking items to the tin walls.
“You can make that space your very own,” Billie said.
They want their barn to be a relaxed, casual atmosphere for a wide range of local gatherings, not just formal events like weddings, she said. “We’re a hunting, fishing, farming community.”
Billie said it will take some time for them to recover the large investment they made into opting for new construction: “Our business plan is to have it paid for in 15 years, then it would be profitable in our retirement.”
By their calculations, she said, they could afford to hire a manager at that time and still remain profitable. Also, a vineyard is not out of the question.
“We could plant grapes in the front field after we turn a profit. We may just plant them for the looks of them,” she said.
And Billie’s dad, a lifelong farmer, has another plan in mind for the barn, teasing her that she needs to fill the new barn with a herd of cattle, she said, smiling. “He couldn’t believe we were wasting it on people.”
The Church Barn will host a grand opening barn dance on Saturday, June 30. Free and open to the public, the event will feature a pig roast, open bar and local country bands R Country Gals and R Country Offspring.
The Church Barn is located just west of Barron at 1615 13½ St. For more information, find them on Facebook at “The Church Barn” or call 715-418-1550.