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Serving: MI

Barn creates dream place for Michigan farmer

Barn Spotlight: A gambrel-roofed barn in the Upper Peninsula dates to the 1940s.

Nate Demers has traveled the world, and until recently, he lived in Marquette. The Negaunee native is a log home restoration professional, a career that takes him to interesting places and structures. 

He now primarily focuses on northern Michigan and northern Wisconsin. Demers had been looking for property to buy when he saw a farm for sale along U.S. Route 2 just outside Engadine in the Upper Peninsula. 

When he set his eyes on its big, red barn on the hill, he said, “That’s my dream place — because of the barn.” His predecessor there, William Wagner, in the early 1900s had also called this his dream place — at the time because of its thick forest and gurgling stream.

The 30-by-90-foot gambrel-roofed barn dates to the mid-1940s with the date of its concrete floor — Sept. 28, 1946 — closely matching. It replaced two other barns, one for which it shares a footprint. As best as Demers can determine, the barn on the north end of the property was used for young stock separated by a drive-thru, with the milking parlor taking up about two-thirds of the barn. 

Unlike many barns its age and older, it is not held together with wooden pegs or “tree nails,” but with 8-inch spikes. Some of the spikes have worked loose over the years, since they don’t contract and expand with the wood around them, so Demers keeps an eye on changes. The barn is cabled, sidewall to sidewall, likely to ensure the frame could handle the added weight when a metal roof was added 20 years ago.

Underneath the metal roof is traditional shingle roofing, and under that is the original cedar shake. The barn’s siding was in very good condition, but Demers chose to sheath the barn in metal. He added 12 upper-level windows for light and replaced all ground-level windows. Metal doors replaced wood. 

“I’d like to meet the guy who did the cedar shakes,” Demers says with a grin. “I bet it was the youngest guy on the crew!”

“If we were to build this barn now, we could not insure for what its value is,” he says, gazing up at the frame, the rafters, the beauty. “All I can do is do my best to protect it.” Demers says several people have asked him why he didn’t pull the wood siding off the barn and sell it before installing metal.

“I wanted the original wood siding," he explains. "It is good to have it, and it helped in mounting the metal for stability. It is worth more to me on the barn. I had no interest in selling it to become someone’s cupboards in Chicago.” The wood also has insulation value.

The 240-acre farm originally was Chippewa Indian territory and then acquired by the William Wagner family. Wagner came to America from Germany aboard a cattle cargo ship in 1910. Only 18 years old, he traveled to Engadine by train where relatives helped him get a start in life. He bought his 40 acre-dream on “old M-12,” which started as a Native American travel route and is now U.S. Route 2.

Gradually, the homestead grew to include a house, two barns, a chicken coop, outhouse and two sheds — likely one for equipment and one used as a granary. Today, just the outhouse and chicken coop remain of the original structures.

Many early Michigan farmers also worked in the rich lumbering industry that brought immigrants from many countries to the Upper Peninsula in the early 1900s.

The farm was sold to Wagner’s son-in-law Lyle Jenks, who married Wagner’s daughter Alvena. The barn stopped being used for dairy in the late 1960s, about the time many family farms fell by the wayside.

Ed Schmitt, who lives just east of the farm, said at farming’s peak in the Engadine area, there were 35 farms, each having 30 to 60 head of dairy cattle. Today, there are only two farms, and each of them has more than 600 cattle being milked three times a day.

What farms remain are primarily raising beef, but many have been broken up and sold. He is pleased the area has an Amish community of about 10 families who have breathed new life into old farms.

Demers says he is hoping to locate photos of how his barn and farm looked back when there were cattle. Behind the barn are many pieces of farm equipment, some old enough to have been horse-drawn, others of more recent vintage. As time permits, he is sorting out what can still be used, if only for decoration, and what is beyond repair.

Nate and his wife, Ganga, a native of Nepal whom he met on a mountain biking expedition, use the barn for storage, but they are preparing to have the north end become a feed room and the milking parlor to be home to goats, sheep and a milk cow. Once the mow is free of old loose hay and pigeon droppings, they hope to locate a good source for square-baled hay.

Demers says when they bought the property, the barn was home to far too many pigeons making far too much of a mess in the haymow. “I heard they don’t like music. I tried country music, classic, rock and they must like it all. They didn’t leave,” he says, shaking his head. “It wasn’t until I got some birdshot that they decided to move on.”

Then, pointing to pairs of mountain bike handlebars mounted on posts, he laughs, “Some people mount antlers. I mount my retired mountain bikes!” He has biked at more than 19,000 feet, and biked in Africa, Nepal and India. 

Nate and Ganga have two children, ages 5 and 2. He plans to mount climbing grips on the north wall of the barn to create a climbing wall for family enjoyment when the children are older. 

Acquiring the farm with the big, red barn was a dream come true for a man with an adventurous spirit. The adventure continues.

Arnett is the author of “American Barns” and co-founder of Barn Believers Community Project Fund, held with the Battle Creek Community Foundation. She writes from Battle Creek and may be reached at coralan@comcast.net.

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