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Barns span generations, offer multiple uses

Barn Spotlight: From the golden egg to the golden ring, the Clark family barn serves as a wedding chapel.

Jan Corey Arnett

February 5, 2020

5 Slides

When remodeling was done last August in a century-old farmhouse in Logan Township, owners expected torn-out walls to reveal plenty of old lath and plaster. What they didn’t anticipate finding tucked into one of those walls was a neatly typed letter, dated Oct. 30, 1917.

Written to John W. Clark, the letter was from Fox River Butter Co., East Market Street, Detroit, which is now home to the Eastern Market. Its message was enticing to Clark, a young farmer who, like so many at that time, had a few cows and was looking to build his income.

The letter began by relating the story of the goose that laid the golden egg. Likening Clark’s cows to the goose, and butterfat to the golden egg, the company representative wrote, “ … your greatest source of revenue is the butterfat.” 

It went on to state that if Clark would affix an enclosed tag to his milk shipment to the company, Fox River would “guarantee the returns will be satisfactory.” This enticement was intended to convince farmers receiving the letter to keep cattle for milk rather than meat. 

A sidebar on the left side of the letter relates the history of Fox River Butter Co., once the largest distributor of butter in the world. It made a quick ascent from beginnings in Oswego, Ill., in 1876 to incorporation with capital of $8,000 in 1885, and a move to Chicago soon after the turn of the century with capital of $800,000. By 1915, it had moved to Detroit with $2 million dollars. Golden egg, indeed.

“Fast-forward from the writing of the letter, six generations and 102 years,” says Rhoda Clark, who is married to John W.’s great-grandson Nick. In September 2019, their granddaughter Melanie Provoast and EJ Bodrie exchanged wedding vows in the family barn that sits just across the road from where John W. Clark once cared for his cash cows and the letter was found. The original barn no longer exists.

The newer barn was constructed in 1947 by George L. Clark, John W.’s son. Its curved-rafter roof has many names — gothic, arched, rainbow or round. This design allows for easier hay storage and, in parts of the country where snow and wind are a problem, directs wind up and over and allows snow to slide off. 

The 40-by-100-foot mow is still used for hay storage, but when the young couple wanted to be married there, a lot of moving and sweeping had to be done.

“A ramp had already been assembled to move round bales in and out of the mow,” Rhoda explains. “That ramp made for an impressive ascending aisle for the bride and her father to enter the mow.” 

Once inside, the barn has a Noah’s Ark-like feeling, she says, “or even that of an elegant cathedral.” White oak was harvested from the farm, just as has been done for two centuries for many barns across the U.S. — in this case not to build the barn but to stabilize and strengthen the mow’s floor. 

Those joists are 16 feet long, 4-by-6-inches in size, each weighing 300 pounds. Amish benches were brought in for seating, and decorations were put in place. Old farming implements and original horse harnesses were hung on walls. 

“Sunshine glimmered between the vertical, rough-cut lumber of the south wall behind the wedding party, casting a warm glow,” Rhoda says happily. “It was peaceful, even with the occasional rooster’s crow or a cow’s moo!” 

Beef cows and calves pasture near farm outbuildings, while free-range chickens come and go from the barn, some even showing up finely feathered for the wedding.

Neither John W. nor George L. Clark ever imagined a family barn may one day serve as a wedding chapel. Their concern was cows and butterfat. Today, their descendant Nick and his wife, Rhoda, tend 140 registered Jerseys and Holsteins at Rho-Nic Holsteins and Pro-Hart Jerseys, a few miles away.

“A strong barn can symbolize a strong marriage,” Rhoda notes, reemphasizing how much the family barn means to them.  

Author Grey Osterud, in the 2012 book "Putting the Barn Before the House," writes of farming in New York state from the late 1800s to about 1950, including the division of labor and need for teamwork. 

Osterud relates what happened when a farmer, as the prosperity of the farm increased, built a new barn but overlooked his wife’s desire for a new house. One day, she arranged for him to be away, and while he was gone, she moved their belongings into the new barn, creating a stir among neighbors and the clergy.

The importance of a strong barn to a good farm or ranch has always been known, but today as barns are being given entirely new uses — antique shops and athletic centers, bakeries and breweries, garden centers and gathering places — their importance continues.

And that applies whether a couple chooses merely to exchange vows there or to call it home. A barn itself can be the golden egg.

Arnett is co-founder of the Barn Believers Community Project Fund and author of "American Barns."  She can be reached at [email protected]. Arnett writes from Battle Creek, Mich.

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