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Sherri Richards, Published July 03 2010

Rustic Retreat

When Dave and Anne Larson graduated from Concordia College in 1977, they said they would own a retreat center within five years.

The Moorhead couple had worked with youth programs. They grew to appreciate what being in nature can do to spur communication and self-discovery.

Decades passed. They kept saying “in five years.”

About eight years ago, they found the ideal site: a 100-year-old farmhouse along the banks of the Red River, about 11 miles south of Moorhead’s downtown.

It met the criteria for a retreat center Dave’s mentor, a pastor, had set out long ago: a beautiful setting not far from a metro area. They made it their home.

But it wasn’t until their son was married there last September that they moved forward on their college ambition.

Now the 2½-story farmhouse and refurbished red barn nestled on a half-mile of riverfront have become Rustic Oaks, a retreat and event center.

“It’s a good place to start building our dream on,” Anne Larson said. “It has a lot of history and space.”

‘Taking care of what we have’

Norwegian immigrants Even and Marit Corneliussen built a small home on the property in 1895 and then added on in 1908.

It’s located on a stretch of gravel road the Larsons would often drive on weekends, keeping an eye out for property.

The Larsons, who co-own several Anytime Fitness gyms, updated the six-bedroom house, even lifting it to install a new foundation. The house serves as Rustic Oaks’ inn. A large bedroom is dubbed the bridal suite.

They’re also working to renovate a 1930s barn, which can be used for dining or dances. French doors in the hayloft will open to a 30-by-28-foot deck. Rustic chandeliers and lanterns dot the arched ceiling and walls.

“It’s so easy to tear things down and build new. We probably could have for less money,” Anne said.

But they liked, as Anne describes it, “the idea of taking care of what we have.”

She can envision different ways to reuse the farmstead’s silo. Even an old claw-footed tub is reused as a beverage cooler.

They planted 2,000 trees along the river and established a wildlife pond. They’re restoring much of their 22 acres to prairie and wildflowers.

Through a related business, Reelin’ on the Red, Rustic Oaks offers pontoon river tours and guided fishing exhibitions. They can imagine offering cross-country skiing in the winter.

Rustic Oaks started hosting events this spring. One of the first was a corporate retreat for Mac’s Hardware, which held its two-day annual meeting there in May.

KayLynn Wold, advertising and human resources manager, said she wanted a unique venue for the gathering of 11 store managers from three states.

“You get tired of regular meeting rooms,” Wold said.

They met in the dining room of the house, ate in the barn and gathered around the bonfire.

“You’re in a natural environment. It was just a lot more comfortable than being stuck in a hotel conference room,” Wold said.

The Larsons have booked 11 weddings for this summer and fall. Most couples signed on after seeing the site in the middle of winter, in the midst of construction.

“They caught the vision with us,” Anne said of the engaged couples.

Event coordinator Emily Gilbertson said people connect with the homestead and its history.

“It’s the place. It sells itself,” she said.

“People are looking for a unique setting, something different than your church wedding and hotel reception,” added Gilbertson, whose own wedding is among Rustic Oaks’ first ceremonies.

Business profile

Other historic venues

Rustic Oaks isn’t the only local historic home to find new life as an event venue.

A Friend’s House north of Kragnes, Minn., on Highway 75 has been a wedding venue since at least 1990.

Formerly known as The White House, Jeremy and Bobbi Kuipers purchased the property in 2005.

“People are attracted to the historic buildings, something very different than your hotels and motels,” Bobbi Kuipers said. “They like that it’s their venue for the day. … It’s just peaceful out here. It’s beautiful and peaceful.”

The couple had been searching for a country home for a few months when they came across the 1902 home. They fell in love with it, and the event venue business seemed like a good fit.

“We just enjoy having fun and helping people have fun,” Bobbie Kuipers said. “We enjoy the opportunity to work with new people.”

In Casselton, N.D., the Woell Mansion has played host to weddings, parties and other events.

“I’ve had everything but a funeral and a baptism so far,” said Inez Woell.

Inez and John Woell bought the house in 1994. Soon after, a doctor wanted to have a Christmas party there, Inez Woell said.

“From there, it just went by word of mouth,” she said. “People kind of insisted they wanted to see it. No one had been in here for years.”

The 8,000-square-foot home was built in 1910 by Wallace Grosvenor, who died that year. It became a Masonic lodge in 1925.

Woell has remodeled seven upstairs bedrooms and added a half bathroom and garage. She offers tours to people who want to stop by, $5 a person, and runs it as a bed-and-breakfast at times.

“There’s a lot to look at,” Woell said. “There’s historic value everywhere.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556