When you passed by a barn 30 or more years ago, you could safely assume animals were inside or nearby, or that the barn had another farm use. Today, a barn may still look like one from the outside, but the inside may tell a different story. It could be the home of a microbrewery, a hair salon or a car dealership. It could be a drive-through party store or a sit-down event center featuring a stand-up comedian.
No statistics document how many barns now have nontraditional uses, though dozens have been identified. There aren’t even reliable statistics on how many wood-frame barns survive across the country. Only once in recent years has the federal government made any effort to record, along with data on acreage, numbers of farms and how many farms still had pre-1950s barns.
What is certain is that for many barns to survive, they need a new purpose. That purpose is often use as a garage, workshop, storage building or some combination thereof. “Man caves” and “she sheds” are gaining in popularity, as well.
Such is the case with an unassuming but loved barn along Highway 26 near the tiny, northern town of Toivola, a bit southwest of Houghton.
Given the history of large portions of northern Upper Peninsula, it is a good guess that the name Toivola is Finnish. It means “community of hope.” When Mike Fik saw a particular piece of property with a well-built home and a Finnish-built barn, he hoped he could one day own it. Hope and persistence paid off, and for the past six years, he and his wife, Judy, have owned the place they long admired near town on W-26.
The barn, roughly 48 by 28 feet in size, was built in the 1920s. Over the course of its life, owners changed hands, possibly up to three times, Mike says. According to Mike, when Leonard Pennanen owned it in the 1940s, he added the lean-to that runs the length of the barn paralleling the highway. Prior to the Fiks’ purchase of the property, Dicki Lindgren had owned it for some 40 years.
“Dicki was the one that made the back portion of the upper level of the barn into a man cave,” Mike says.
The upper level features a small bar, walls with trophy mounts and sports décor, including a Harley Davidson ceiling fan. Mike says the gleaming hardwood floor was made with salvaged flooring that would otherwise have been discarded.
The man cave has a great view of the yard and nearby hillside, and opens onto a rear deck and stairs.
Judy’s fondness for unusual collectibles, including an array of Halloween décor, occupies another section of the former hayloft. The ground floor of the barn, with the installation of a garage door, is storage for vehicles, a lawnmower and tractor. The lean-to, which Mike says once was used for cattle, is his workshop.
“The story goes that Mrs. Pennanen got mad at her children and buried their toys somewhere in the yard,” Mike says. “A granddaughter came here once, wanting to do some exploring. I have found some pieces of things but nothing too exciting.”
Mike, who makes rustic furniture and is a driver for the local band, Outlaw’D, has sealed his barn’s cedar shingles with a quality oil stain to protect them from critters and the elements.
“I was spraying the barn one day,” he says, “when a bat came out from under a shingle and got some spray on it. It circled around and came back to the exact same shingle. I know they are blind, but I swear it looked at me and had some choice words.”
A few barns have what appears to be a chimney or a narrow chute built on one end. The chute in some cases is used for ventilation, drawing warm air up and away during the summer. Mike notes that his barn at one time had a chimney-like vent near the center of the lean-to.
“I always called it the Stink Stack,” he says with a laugh. “We removed it.”
Barns today, as noted, have an array of new uses, even becoming dental clinics and restaurants. But among the uses ascribed to Mike and Judy’s barn is one that surely must be a first.
“This barn lets us do something I doubt a lot of barns can do,” Mike says. “In the winter, the snow gets about 6 feet deep along the lean-to. So from the snowbank, you can climb onto the lean-to and toboggan off. It’s a lot of fun!”
Only in the U.P.!
Arnett writes from Battle Creek.