Bringing Function Back to Iowa's Iconic Structures

By Kriss Nelson, Iowa Soybean Association

Once used as shelters for livestock and storage for hay and grain, many of Iowa’s iconic barns are finding new purpose.

Barns are often considered the centerpiece of Iowa’s farms. As times have changed, those large structures have been falling by the wayside.

Fortunately, there has been an uprising in finding new uses for historic barns, many of them over 100 years old.

Family Barn is for Work and Play

Looks can be deceiving, especially when you look at Bill Jennings’ barn. To passersby, the 42-foot by 64-foot structure looks like the typical barn built for its era around the 1890s.

Upon entering, the barn appears to be your typical working barn, but once guests begin the trek up the new stairs to the haymow, they instantly see how the barn differentiates among others.

Jennings purchased the barn near Story City in Boone County in 2002 from Don and Ione Stoll. In 2011, he decided to fix up the haymow portion and recruited Don to help.

Jennings and Stoll worked to transform the haymow into a recreational area with the south portion being used for a gym and basketball court and the north used for family and friend gatherings and office meetings.

The haymow features three-quarter-inch tongue and groove plywood throughout the floor and walls with three-quarter-inch hickory over the top. This configuration was done to help with the performance of a basketball while being dribbled on the floor.

“You can actually bounce a basketball, and the floor never has a dead spot,” Jennings says. He notes that basketball is a large part of their family, which is why the basketball hoop and court are the centerpiece of the barn’s refurbished haymow.

The lower portion of the barn is used for the family’s cow/calf operation, dogs and horses.

Swiss Acres: A Country-Style Wedding and Event Venue

At Swiss Acres near Terril, in Dickinson County, Aaron and Carly Janssen have renovated two barns to suit their wedding and event venue.

The couple moved to their acreage in 2015. “There’s nothing better than living in the country,” Carly says. “Having these two beautiful barns is truly a blessing.” 

The couple’s engagement in early 2016 prompted renovation of the 1950s era dairy barn.

“We wanted to get married out at the acreage, and I wanted to have the barn ready in time for us to get married in it,” says Aaron, who recruited the help of his dad Don, brother Kyle and countless other family and friends.

Refurbishing the dairy barn, which is now used for receptions and other gatherings, involved tearing through more than a foot of concrete and concrete partitions and removal of the haymow.

The work was done by the beginning of summer 2016, and the couple held their wedding ceremony in the barn.

After using the barn for their own wedding, they decided to take the leap and turn Swiss Acres into a wedding and event center.

They completed renovations on the dairy barn, which features modern bathrooms, a kitchenette space for caterers and custom wooden tables and chairs. Approximately half of the haymow was reinstalled for added event space.

After finishing the dairy barn, the couple turned its focus to the north barn, which is now referred to as the “ceremony barn.”

The barn was lifted from its original foundation, and the structure was rotated. Additions were incorporated on each side, and the exterior steel siding was removed and replaced with cedar siding.

The renovated ceremony barn features a bride and groom suite, seating for 250 people, heating, air conditioning and restrooms.

There are also grain bin gazebos and a green space between the barns that allow space for outdoor recreation.

Whether a visitor once loaded pigs, worked at the dairy or put hay in the haymow, the Janssens enjoy hearing memories tied to their barns.

“We did not have this idea in our heads at all when we bought the acreage,” says Carly Janssen. “We enjoy everyone we meet and the stories that come along with the people who come to events. It’s more than just restoring barns; it’s the stories of the people that have a tie to it too.”

Century Old Barn is Home to Winery and Event Center

When Preston and Amber Gable purchased their acreage near Stratford in Hamilton County in 2014, they uncovered what would eventually become a dream come true – a barn to use as the center of their business, Backcountry Winery.

“It definitely was the barn that attracted us to the acreage,” Amber says. “We knew the winery was something we wanted to do, but it wasn’t a priority. We both had full-time jobs and spent the first fall just cleaning up outside.”

The barn was built prior to the 1920s and owned by the Alfred Erickson family for their dairy operation.

Later, the barn was rented by neighbors, which stored corn in the hayloft. That decision was almost devasting to the barn, and ultimately, it changed the barn’s brick exterior forever.

“The weight of the corn blew out the north wall,” says Amber.

On New Year’s weekend, Amber decided to put on her coveralls and head to the barn.

“It was full of junk; people had just stashed things for years,” she says. “We began the process of emptying the barn and started working on the upstairs, which was full of moldy, rotten, dusty hay.”

After a new roof, the couple proceeded to work on the barn by replacing the haymow and lower-level floors in summer 2015.

They continued working on the barn when time allowed, which included mainly nights and weekends, with the assistance from friends and family. Once the barn refurbishment was close to completion, they decided it was time to start a winery.

“At this point, if we were investing all this time, energy and money, we were just going to have to open the winery,” she says, Amber, adding they made their first wine that same year.

Renovations of the barn also included the installation of plumbing, new electrical and an addition used as a bridal suite, office and catering space.

Amber says they are honored to bring life back into an old barn.

“There’s something about the quality of spaces from that era,” she says. “It can’t be duplicated. It is absolutely invaluable and special to us.”

Backcountry Winery is open April through December, including Friday evenings and Saturdays through Christmas.