Explore Michigan’s highways and byways and one can find barns to appreciate, although they are fewer and farther between. Travelers on Interstate 75 still can have a visual treat just south of the Mackinac Bridge, where along the west side of the expressway — near the Levering exit — is New Beginnings Ranch and Midwest Buffalo Co.
Some remember it as Romanik’s Ranch, a family destination for several years, which included a petting zoo, weekend music events, a gift shop and restaurant. School groups enjoyed tours to see bison and elk, sometimes as part of a trip that included Mackinac Island.
No matter the connection, the red barns and stately white farmhouse — flanked by rolling hills — are a beautiful sight. Today, buffalo still graze on those hills as the farm is owned by Kevin and Kimba MacRitchie of Levering, Mich., who bought it in 2012.
“Bands made their name here,” Kevin MacRitchie says with a grin. “The Romaniks seem to have had half the town working here at one time or another. We often meet people who say they worked for Walt and Marilyn Romanik. They came for a day and stayed for several summers.”
The cut-over land was settled in 1890 by John and Augustina (Stepler) Brandau, for whom the road beside the barn is named. Originally from Bad-Hersfield, Heffa, Germany, the couple came to Michigan via New Hamburg, Ontario. The Brandaus had six children. Many descendants remain in the Levering area.
The main barn was built in 1892. MacRitchie said that it appears that the four stalls in its lower level housed draft horses, along with hay, equipment and possibly a sheep-shearing or goat room.
INVITING: The inside of the barn is inviting for large-scale events, such as family gatherings, graduation parties and wedding celebrations.
Especially interesting, MacRitchie says, is that a handmade wooden “squeeze chute” also is situated at ground level. Cattle could be driven along a dirt ramp into the chute where their heads could then be secured in a “head gate” or stanchion. This allowed the Brandaus to do the daily milking or administer medical care. MacRitchie said the barn has a root cellar for storing vegetables at a constant cool temperature year-round.
“The upper level of the barn was clearly used to store a significant amount of hay on both its east and west sides,” MacRitchie says, “along with most of the northern section. And, at one time a tractor had been parked inside the drive-up ramp entrance to the upper level, judging from oil stains and other discoloration of the flooring.”
The loft area also includes a granary, replete with metal nailed over holes chewed by critters craving ready access to free food. It now is used as a tack room to store bridles, saddles, harnesses and other horse-related gear.
As is true of many barns, the original footprint and clues as to this one’s construction or ethnic origin are hidden within additions built over the years. Now and then, behind wood siding may be a log barn or configuration unique to immigrant preferences. Original characteristics are becoming harder to identify with the tendency these days to cover or replace wood siding with steel.
“There are at least two additions to this barn,” MacRitchie says. “An enclosed, concrete-surfaced area holds about 60 feet of cattle-feeding trough, where hay could be kept clean, while also making it easy for tractors to have access for cleaning out manure. West of that is a small addition, which likely provided storage for an early-model car with a hand-operated garage door having been installed at some point."
SETTLERS: The cut-over land was settled in 1890 by John and Augustina (Stepler) Brandau.
Design elements aside, what the MacRitchies love best about the barn are the original hand-hewn posts and beams. “They make the barn come alive for us,” MacRitchie says. “It is aged, but in mint condition. Ladders built from mow floor to the top of the barn allow you to climb high into the hay mow and make you feel like you stepped back in time. The track and trolley system to swing hay from wagons into the mow make this barn a joy simply to experience.”
And, experience the farm is exactly what people do, not just from the expressway as they enjoy the view, but as a setting for large-scale events — family gatherings, graduation parties and wedding celebrations. MacRitchie says New Beginnings Ranch, with its partnership with Midwest Buffalo Co., is the largest operating buffalo ranch in Michigan. Part of the mission is to support new ranches around the country with startup assistance.
“The barn has been used for many things,” MacRitchie says. “Tools left by the last owner help keep in mind the connection to the barn’s earlier lives. It’s a relaxed atmosphere of peace.”
One curiosity keeps the MacRitchies’ wondering, however. They are trying to figure out old wiring that has a security feature attached to every door and window.
“It makes you think someone ran moonshine during prohibition times and stored it all here,” MacRitchie says. “This is something we are still investigating.
“There is an element of history, joy, peace and love that people feel when they are in these old, amazingly beautiful barns that makes them want to experience it. When we turn on the hanging Christmas lights and evening comes, people think they are in an enchanted fairy tale.”
Gazing up at the hand-hewn massive beams, MacRitchie says, “They are the heart of this building. I can only imagine the blood, sweat and tears of a time when everyone pitched in to help one another build such amazing pieces of history. There is a draw to this place that you feel but can hardly describe.”
Arnett is the author of American Barns and co-founder of Barn Believers Community Project Fund held by the Battle Creek Community Foundation. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.