On a trip last fall with her in-laws-to-be, Chelsea Cardarelli scouted a half-dozen wedding venues around western Maine before a waitress suggested the Maine Wedding Barn.
It once housed 20,000 bales of hay upstairs, 147 cows downstairs.
“As soon as we got out of the car, I just knew it was the place,” said Cardarelli, 26, from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “I love the rustic feel. With a barn, you have more of a blank canvas to work with. Sometimes when you’re looking at a hotel or a golf course, there’s usually already a theme going on there and that was kind of the problem.”
She and fiance Kevin tied the knot at the former Tripp Crest Dairy Farm in Minot last month. They celebrated under exposed beams, elegant chandeliers and twinkling fairy lights in front of 160 guests.
“Even now, I still have people saying it was the most beautiful wedding that they’d been to,” said Cardarelli.
There’s no question more brides and grooms like being down on the farm.
“Maine is really becoming a destination barn state,” said Misty Coolidge, who opened Coolidge Family Farm in New Gloucester last year after overhauling a former chicken barn. “Maine over the last few years has quadrupled in the amount of barn inquiries. I’m booked for next year and I probably have a good half-dozen bookings for ’18 right now.”
Couples are drawn to barns’ customizability. (Well, relative customizability. You still better appreciate rustic.) They like mixing and matching, pairing this caterer — or this food truck, in Coolidge’s experience — with that DJ.
They like the relaxed atmosphere and, in some places, the seclusion. They also like that it’s not a church.
And they like that they can have — maybe more than in traditional settings — flat-out fun.
“One couple wanted to win the prize for, and these are their words, ‘The Best Red Neck Wedding,'” said Barbara Fogarty, business manger at the Maine Wedding Barn.
Think shotgun shell casings as boutonnieres and camouflage vests for the men. For the main course: Trash can turkey. (That’s turkey cooked in a trash can.)
“It’s wild to see,” said Fogarty.
Fogarty said her husband, John St. Hilaire, bought the former 108-acre dairy farm in 2012 with the idea of opening an event space. The barn had stopped housing cows in 1987.
“It was neglected for 25 years,” she said. “There were some trees growing inside.”
It’s now one of the largest open-floor-plan barns in the state. They added spacious bathrooms and a country-cool bar lined with bent road signs.
Some barns, like Fogarty’s, book as a package: When you secure the space and the tables, the linens, bartender, parking attendants and the like are included.
Other barns supply just the space; the couple lines up all the other details.
Many of Fogarty’s clients are in their late 20s and early 30s, the vast majority from out of state.
“They were born and raised here, but they’re coming back to Maine to marry,” she said.
King’s Hill Inn & Barn in South Paris hosted a July wedding for a Brazilian couple. The bride had grown up in Brunswick.
“Some of her family was here, all of his family was in Brazil,” said Kate Michaud, one of King’s Hill’s owners. “They decided to come to Maine, I’m not sure how they found us. We loved it. They brought all sorts of fun Brazilian traditions with them.”
Michaud, who has shot weddings with her business Kate Michaud Photography for six years, said their former dairy barn dates to 1899. She and partners bought it a year ago. It had been turned into an event space three years before that.
“We have a lot of people who come, particularly to us, who are interested in history; our property is a historic site,” she said. “They’re kind of looking for something that’s a little more secluded and (has) an outdoor space as well an indoor space just in case it rains.”
Four sites on the 25-acre property are available for the ceremony, including in front of a set of antique church windows.
Coolidge, in New Gloucester, has been in the wedding business for 15 years. She’s a notary and owns a mobile bar, Maine Mixologist, that catered plenty of barn weddings before she and her husband decided to open their own.
“I’d been traveling around to all these other venues, bar venues specifically, for the past decade working at them, so I got to know the owners, what they charge, what services they provide,” she said.
When Coolidge found out she was losing her day job, they decided to take the plunge, buying a retired chicken farm three years ago. The 1860 barn took a year to renovate. She recently spent $10,000 to heat it so she can host weddings year-round.
“The whole inside of the barn had to be demo’d and walls down and cleaned,” said Coolidge. “It’s been a labor of love.”
But, worth it: Last year, she hosted 10 weddings. This year, 26.
“Most of my brides come to me with a $10,000 to $15,000 budget,” she said. “It’s the bride that’s looking for the rustic-elegance sort of wedding. It’s casual, it’s laid back — nothing about it is formal.”
Tossing garters and bouquets are out. Ditto, even, for cutting the cake and champagne toasts.
“A lot of the flowers look fresh-picked; they’re sticking one daisy in a bud vase, something like that,” Coolidge said. “They’re doing everything simple. Desserts are pies and cookies and doughnuts — tons of doughnuts. Holy Donut is at my property quite a bit.”
Coolidge and Fogarty both wonder when, or if, the growth of barns-as-event-spaces in Maine will reach a tipping point.
“Even though the demand is great, I feel like there’s only going to be so many couples,” Coolidge said.
Fogarty said she doesn’t see barn weddings as a fad: “It just brings another option for gathering spaces. I do see it . . . getting saturated.”
Randy Rawdings is hoping to make a wedding barn entrance next year. He and his wife have spent the last year renovating and opening the 1830 Wedding Barn in Oxford.
It was his daughter’s idea to start the business after she got heavily involved researching venues for a friend’s wedding.
“It’s hard to bring a barn that’s 200 years old up to code,” said Rawdings. “Last year, I spent every day of my life, every waking hour doing a lot of work.”
He’s expanding the parking area now and showing the barn for events in 2018 and 2019. He’s hoping it’ll be a nice job someday in retirement.
“Over the last couple months we’ve had all kinds of inquiries,” said Rawdings. “It’s certainly looking pretty good.”