The rustic charm of 19th-century barns creates chic wedding venues.
The rustic charm of 19th-century barns creates chic wedding venues.
By David Jones
Every couple wants their wedding day to be special, hopefully something that’s a little different than weddings of all their friends. That’s why country barn weddings are becoming a big business in Canada and the United States. There’s just something romantic about holding your wedding in a majestic 19th century barn built with hand-hewn beams. They’re solid, sturdy, and have stood the test of time—just like couples hope their marriage will.
The Grange Manson barn in Austin, Quebec, kept catching Jodi Clark’s and Tyler Hunt’s attention every time they drove by it on their way to visit family at their cottage on Lake Memphremagog. Tyler had been seeing the barn for much of his life. His family often drove by it at its original location, near Knowlton’s Landing, when they went skiing at Owl’s Head near the Quebec/Vermont border. Even though they had only seen the exterior, the outdoorsy Montreal couple was captivated by its beauty. They also noticed that a lot of weddings were being held there.
“We kept saying, ‘Oh, that’s so beautiful. Even before we were engaged we said that’s where we should get married,’ ” Jodi says. “We got engaged in November, 2017 and contacted the barn right away to see if they had any availabilities but we found that they were already fully booked. We were like, ‘Oh no! We have to get married at this barn. We can’t think of anywhere else where we want to get married. What do we do?’ We got lucky and they had a few cancellations; the Sunday of Labor Day long weekend came available. So, we thought, ‘Let’s just do it on the Sunday. It’s a long weekend so it will work perfectly.’ ”
“We thought it was the perfect venue,” Tyler says. “We both love the country, so we wanted to get married in the country, somewhere that wasn’t a church. A place that would give our guests an excuse to have a weekend getaway where they could relax a little bit away from the hustle and bustle of the city.”
Change of plans. Abandoned old nineteenth-century timber-frame barns are part of the charm of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Neil Manson, a well-known stone mason in the Lake Memphremagog region of Quebec, never imagined that a decision to purchase a historic barn would draw him into the wedding industry. He initially planned to buy one and renovate it into his retirement home. He found his barn in 2008 in the local paper’s classified ads. The high drive style barn, built in 1889, was larger than he’d wanted and the foundation was crumbling, but it was in very good shape overall because the roof had been maintained. It’s featured in author Louise Abbott’s book on barns of the Eastern Townships, “The Heart of the Farm.”
Unique architecture. “I fell in love with it the moment I stepped through the door,” Manson says. “The architecture is very unique for this area; it has ship knees and canted queen posts. There are no records remaining about who built it, but they must have been a ship builder. I purchased it from Lawrence Jones. It’d been in his family for 122 years.”
Manson lovingly spent nine months of his spare time on weekends, nights, and holidays taking the structure apart and moving it to its new home on land he had bought in Austin, Quebec. It was a giant jigsaw puzzle. Floorboards were in one pile, roof boards in another and the wall boards in yet another, Manson says. Each piece was numbered when they took it apart so they’d know how to put it back together again. Only a few of the frames were kept intact during the move.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime-never-again project; it almost did us in,” Manson says. “I was determined not the spoil [the flavor of] the barn and I found people that were willing to help me. I found a young architect who really loved old architecture. He was restoring an old house that he had bought in the region and wound up helping me a lot. I was told my big doors up top would need to be replaced with steel fire doors to meet the new building code. I didn’t want to do that because it would ruin the whole flavor of the barn. The architect said, ‘Well, if you can make them self-closing for me, I can pass it.’ We were able to do this by installing steel pulleys, and cables with a weight.”
It took a couple months of their spare time just to make the shingles using an antique mill that was powered by a flat belt off an old tractor. It was the last time the mill was used; it was sold shortly after they had finished. He was able to purchase the 16-inch blocks of cedar he needed to make the shingles from a friend who happened to be harvesting a big stand of cedar. Looking back, Manson could hardly believe how lucky his timing was.
Attracted attention. The property where Manson had relocated the barn to is at a major intersection on the road to the Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, a major tourist attraction in the region. People noticed it right away. Strangers started stopping in and asking him about renting it for a wedding or for Octoberfest before he had finished reconstructing it. After a bit of research, he quickly realized barn-themed weddings were very popular in the United States. Manson found some beautiful barn wedding venues in Vermont, New York, and Pennsylvania but found no others quite like his that were available in Quebec. It’s quickly become a popular spot in the summer wedding season; they host between 20 to 25 weddings each year. Weekend bookings typically will fill up a year in advance and sometimes two.
The Grange Manson barn, a huge three-story structure, is impressive. The lower level features a walk-out basement that contains an area where the bridal party can get dressed, a honeymoon suite, and a separate games area where the groomsmen can relax before the wedding.
Most couples choose to have their ceremony outdoors on the grounds, either by the pond or in the backyard among the trees as long as the weather cooperates. The barn’s upper loft is held as a backup site in case of rain. The barn is mainly used for the celebrations afterwards; the main floor and the upper loft area will easily seat over 200 guests.
“Barn weddings appeal to a wide range of people,” Manson says. “Just about any type of people or nationality you can think of has been married here. I’ve had Greek weddings, an African wedding, one was half Jamaican and
half English from the Townships. We get lots of Francophones and English from Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Sherbrooke, the Beauce, and the Townships too of course.”
A love story. Jodi and Tyler had a strong attraction to the barn. Their love story began at a sailing school in Sargent’s Bay on Lake Memphremagog just down the road when they were teenagers. Their grandparents had cottages right next to each other.
“We’ve always been friends,” says Jodi. “I had a crush on Tyler when I was 12 and he was 15. He was such a good sailor. But three years was a pretty big difference back then. He only saw me as the little girl next door. We remained friendly over the years but didn’t connect as a couple until we ran into each other at a party after I was done at the university.”
“We both enjoyed skiing,” Tyler says. “It was really important to me that Jodi could ski so I tested her the first time we went skiing together.”
“It was ridiculous, there actually was a test,” Jodi laughed. “I grew up skiing at Mont Tremblant in the Laurentians, but Tyler and I had only spent summers together when we were kids so he didn’t know I knew how to ski. So, one day we went skiing at Owl’s Head and he followed me down the hill with his eyes beating through my back judging every turn that I made. When we got to the bottom Tyler knew I was girlfriend material.”
The couple even had a ski theme at their wedding. All the guest tables were named after runs at either Mont Tremblant or Owl’s Head, and there was a huge 3-by-6-foot sign board that let people know where they were sitting and showed ski maps from the actual mountains.
“We’ve been to lots of weddings over the past few years, so we knew what we wanted,” says Jodi. “The barn is beautiful on its own so we didn’t need any decorations. The décor they have created is exactly what we wanted.”
Learning the ropes. “The wedding business was nothing like I thought it would be,” Manson says. “For some reason I didn’t realize that the drinking party aspect was going to be as big as it was, and I never dreamed it would take up this much time. I thought if someone wanted it, they would rent it and that would be it. But there are a lot of tire kickers, five or six couples tour it for every one that rents it. I had to increase my deposit fee to deter people from just reserving it as a backup location.”
Manson says he finds that most of the couples he rents to are great to work with. He quickly learned that he could rarely count on getting much sleep on Saturday nights because he has to be at the barn for closing time at 2 a.m. to make sure the music stops on time and to help deal with any problems. It’s often 3:00 a.m. before the last guest leaves and the DJ or band gets packed up. After that there are a few hours of cleaning to get ready for the next wedding party coming on Sunday.
Local accommodations are very limited near the barn so excessive alcohol consumption can create problems. Manson will urge the bridal couple not to have an open bar. He strongly recommends that they have buses available to bring their guests to and from their hotels in Magog or Owl’s Head. This reduces the temptation for guests to drive after the wedding if they’ve been drinking.
While some of his neighbors were initially wary about Manson moving his barn into the small mountain village, it turned into a real economic driver for the region. He provides all his clients with a list of local suppliers that can provide everything from flowers to DJs. It includes local caterers who can provide everything from the traditional Quebecois Mechoui-style barbecue buffet to a full five course meals. The nearby inns fill up and many locals rent out their homes to wedding guests through AirBnB.
Jodi and Tyler discovered that holding their wedding in a rural setting that’s a two-hour drive from where they lived has its own set of challenges. To make matters worse, the new owners of Owl’s Head had closed the resort for renovations. So they reserved a mixture of Airbnbs, B&Bs, cottages for rent, hotels, and condos for their guests who weren’t locals as far away as Magog and then booked shuttles to get them to and from the venue.
“Plan in advance when you’re doing a wedding like this because you have to bring everything in,” Jodi says. “The barn only has tables and chairs that come with it. The people at the barn were really helpful but it takes a lot more preparation when you hold your wedding two hours away. Hiring a wedding coordinator keeps everything
on track the day of the wedding and really takes the pressure off.”
The weather forecast was ominous for the day of the wedding. Guests coming from Montreal drove through pouring rain two thirds of the way. But luck was with them—the heavy rain stopped just before the exit for the Grange Manson Barn.
“There were still showers until just before the wedding,” Jodi says. “Jessica, our wedding coordinator, said we have to make a decision whether or not to have the ceremony outside. We looked at the forecast and decided to wait it out. Lo and behold the rain disappeared and it was beautiful and sunny for the wedding. It was just a magical day.”