Rewriting The Book Of Love
By Pat Brockway
History is writing a second story for the 131-year-old Ellis barn in Oakland County, Mich.
The family barn that housed award-winning Percheron horses and stored hay is now in high demand by brides and grooms. In fact, all 2016 dates are booked, and reservations are now being taken for the 2017 wedding season. Because of the state’s four distinct seasons with fluctuating temperatures, the Ellis Barn is rented May-October until a fireproof heating solution is installed. Fourteen weekends are available for nuptials. For two weekends in July, the barn is reserved for the annual Oakland County Fair (OCP), which draws 100,000+ visitors.
“Brides and grooms want something that is text- or Facebook worthy,” OCP Principal Planner Jon Noyes says. “They don’t want something that is ‘Anywhere, USA’ for their special day. They want to make memories and be immersed in the history of the structure, be connected to its stories, and make its history become part of their love story.”
In 2007, the barn was dismantled board-by-board from the Ellis Family Homestead on Dixie Highway and relocated to Springfield Oaks County Park, just five short miles away. Ex-Amish barnwrights were hired to inventory, dismantle, and reconstruct the barn. Since then, the facility has been used for historical tours, antique shows, and barn dances.
A Storied Past
The barn has a rich history. The 14,000-square-foot, two-story structure, built in 1884, was part of the 78-acre Ingomar Stock Farm owned by Norman J. Ellis. When constructing the barn, Ellis chose a location on a major travel route leading to his successful sheep-transportation business, as well as Percheron breeding, involving the strong draft horses needed to navigate the poorly constructed roads.
Ingomar Stock Farm was recognized by the Michigan Historical Commission as a Michigan Centennial Farm. This designation is given when land has been in the same family for 100 years or more. Ellis and his wife Ester Swayze Ellis did not have children, but not long after building the impressive barn, a sign of prosperity to the surrounding community, they found a newborn that had been left on their doorstep. The baby was later adopted as Glen Norman Ellis.
The Ellis Barn was also named Barn of the Year in 2003 by the Michigan Barn Preservation Network.
Eventually, the creation of interstate highways took travelers away from the barn and decreased the need for agricultural products from the family farm.
The Next Chapter
In 2001, RBI 33 LLC, a real estate investment company owned by former major-league baseball players Kirk Gibson and Tim Birtsas, purchased the land. Realizing the historic significance of the barn, they donated it to Oakland County Parks and Recreation, along with $75,000 to assist with the barn’s relocation and rehabilitation.
The joint Oakland County Parks/Road Commission project utilized a $600,000 Transportation Enhancement Grant through the Michigan Department of Transportation to hire the ex-Amish barnwrights.
To preserve the structure’s historical integrity, OCP staff presently works with state historical-preservation groups when making any repairs or changes to the barn, according to Noyes.
“We could have just built a pole barn and rented it out for weddings,” Noyes says. “But it would not be a structure with historical and cultural value.”
The Ellis Barn can accommodate up to 350 people, depending on table/chair set-ups between the two floors. It is rented “as is,” and brides can arrange for their own catering and decorations. Park Supervisor Darlene Rowley says brides and grooms have been very creative. “One bride made special hand-held fans for the guests,” she says. “Grooms get involved in making a bar or getting music. The sound in the barn is great.”
The themes for the weddings have ranged from country style, with hay bales instead of chairs and corn stalks, to elegant, with china place settings, to vintage style, incorporating antiques that have special meaning to the bride and groom. Renters are given access to the barn the day before the event and until noon the day after for cleanup.
Rowley says incorporating a wedding facility into the park has been a learning experience. “You learn to think on your feet,” she says. “Multiple uses of the park are the most challenging. Once we had a wedding, a dog show and horses, along with campers, all at the same time. We told the dog and horse people not to use their public address systems during the wedding ceremony. It worked out well because everyone knew their place and worked together to make sure they didn’t disturb the ceremony.”
Turn The Page
The Ellis Barn’s attraction also translates to the Buhl Estate, another historic building preserved by the county parks. The Buhl Estate has an interesting history, dating back nearly 90 years. The 1927 Tudor-style mansion, once home to Lawrence Buhl, a Detroit industrialist, sits amidst dramatic willows, surrounded by a formal flower garden in Addison Oaks County Park. It was designed by Robert O. Derrick, who also designed the Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich.
The Buhl estate and surrounding property was purchased by Oakland County Parks in 1969 and opened to the public in 1971. Another popular wedding site, the estate’s history and the beautiful surroundings are attractive to brides and grooms.
“This was a private retreat for the wealthy,” Noyes says. “Groomsmen find themselves dressing for the wedding in rooms where big business deals were made. The bride is standing in Cora Buhl’s garden, where she spent many hours tending flowers.”
OCP also preserved a 1920s English-style stone building at Glen Oaks County Park in Farmington Hills. Designated as a Michigan Historical Building, it became the clubhouse for the Glen Oaks Golf Course and is a favorite for banquets and weddings. The property also features an outdoor wedding garden.
With the success of these three historical facilities, Oakland County Parks is continuing to evaluate other structures within the parks system. Noyes says the reuse of existing buildings celebrates the area’s history and enhances the visitors’ recreational experience.
“It adds value to have cool things in the park,” he says. “When it comes to history, not everything is in a museum. Just as there is history in the lakes, trees, flora, fauna, and wildlife at the Oakland County Parks, there is history in the architecture left behind.”
Pat Brockway is a technical assistant with Oakland County Parks and Recreation in Mich. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.