Fond memories of a beloved Ashland wedding barn, event center and restaurant run long in Chequamegon Bay residents, and the couple who bought the venue this spring hope people will visit their establishment to make more.
Brenda Halter and Al Williamson, having moved into Michelle Rudeen’s farmhouse from Duluth, are gradually making their mark on the former Freehands Farm while vowing to follow in Rudeen’s footprints by focusing on sustainability and local foods.
So far, Halter has termed the voyage interesting.
Most recently a U.S. Forest Service supervisor of Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters, Halter knows the magic of memories. Many times in her former job, people told her stories of their time in the Boundary Waters, such as when they met their spouse or tripped over an unexpected adventure.
“Here, everybody has a Freehands story,” Halter said, from listening to live music on the patio, enjoying “go-to Friday date” nights or witnessing nuptials beneath the lighted rafters.
Rudeen made a name for herself and Freehands Farm over the course of 15 years, but last year she decided it was time to find a new outlet for her creativity, and now with teenagers to raise, she wanted to simplify her life.
Enter husband-and-wife duo Halter, 59, and Williamson, 67. They closed on the property at the end of April, intending to carry on many Freehands Farm traditions while introducing a few new ideas of their own.
The barn will continue to host weddings and other special occasions, Halter said. But the couple has decided against reopening Freehands Farm’s former restaurant, a famous farm-to-table mainstay featuring local produce.
Fortunately dining on the barn patio is not necessarily a thing of the past. Local residents made clear their love of the eatery and dining experiences, and Halter has listened.
So when Halter’s son, chef Max Nelson of Salt Lake City, visits to cook for this summer’s wedding events, he’ll pop up a pop-up restaurant at Shaggy Dog Farm on Aug. 15 for the public to get their first taste of Halter and Williamson hospitality.
In the meantime this summer, Halter intends to make contacts with local food producers and culinary talent so she can expand the number of pop-up eatery occasions next summer.
The Teddy factor
While Halter and Williamson intend to follow the same core sustainability and local-foods ethics Rudeen embraced, they also will make their own imprint on the Summit Road farm south of Ashland.
Renaming the venue for their big, beloved — and boisterous — dog Teddy, a cross between an old English sheep dog and poodle with shaggy, black-and-white hair, was but the first.
Teddy embodies the friendly, whimsical air the couple seeks for Shaggy Dog Farm.
“He lives in a world where everybody should love him as much as he loves them,” Halter laughed. “And he loves them!”
Before the first bride marches down the aisle in August, the couple also will have extended the barn’s wood flooring. Halter, who is now taking inventory, said she may hold a rummage sale featuring the restaurant’s chinaware and donate the proceeds to the food pantry.
She also plans to draw on the talents of another son, Mike Nelson, who is a stonemason. She wants him to build an outdoor fireplace for making pizza and bread. Perhaps they will invite people to bring in their bread dough on certain evenings to host a community bread-baking event, she said.
The couple has come a long way since their retirements from the U.S. Forest Service a few years ago.
After working in many cities because of their jobs, they began traveling the states, Canada and Mexico, searching for a new place to call home. Much to their surprise they found it in Ashland, just an hour’s drive away from their last billeting in Duluth.
Halter and Williamson first saw Freehands Farm in the freezing cold, blanketed under feet of snow. They had seen many great places during their travels, but “nothing really just hit us until we came to this place,” Halter said.
On the drive back to Duluth they decided it would become their home. Now they are remodeling the house, mulling business plans and dreaming of possibilities.
“It really is true, that there’s too many good ideas, not too few,” Halter said.
The couple already is accepting engagements for 2020 on their website, shaggydogfarm.com, and may take one or two for later this summer.
But no more pop-up restaurant are definitively planned for this year, although the couple wants to host a harvest dinner in September — exact date to be determined.
More information, such as the menu of the Aug. 15 pop-up eatery and other dinner dates, can be found at facebook.com/shaggydogfarm.