A lucky happenstance three years ago launched a whole new dimension for the owners of Mulberry Lane Farm in this northern Calumet County hamlet - the hosting of weddings on the farmstead that dates to the 1800s and has an intact set of the original buildings.
Six months before their scheduled wedding in 2010, an area couple learned that the venue at which they planned to have their wedding reception backed out of the commitment.
Through a Facebook connection, Mulberry Lane Farm co-owner Bonnie Keyes learned of the dilemma that faced the son of the pastor of the Appleton-area Christ the Rock church and his fiancee.
On the day of the social media link, the first contact occurred at about 9 a.m., the couple visited in the late afternoon, and the wedding was immediately booked for Oct. 31, which happened to be the last day that Mulberry Lane Farm was open for the season.
Before then, the idea of hosting weddings on the farm had not dawned on Keyes, her husband Patrick, their extended family, or their employees.
"It was wonderful," Keyes recalls of that first wedding. With the help of the church connection, there were about 350 guests at that wedding and the word spread, she notes.
Another wedding was held there in 2011, followed by four in 2012. Since then the total has exploded to 18 scheduled weddings this year and 17 already booked for 2014. Seven of the latter were added in the period from April 10-June 1 alone.
In addition to the local area, couples from New York City, Philadelphia, and the Chicago and Milwaukee areas have chosen Mulberry Lane Farm as their wedding site.
Keyes, who now describes herself as the wedding coordinator for the facility, indicates that about 75 percent of the couples stage all of the activities involving the wedding at the farm.
Special requests can easily be accommodated. Keyes mentions a bride - a state trooper from Indiana - who was driven to the wedding site in an antique squad car, a bride who rode a horse, and a couple who brought their dog to the ceremony.
Couples choose various spots on the property for the wedding ceremony. A popular one is a grassy pad, with a semi-circle of seven trees, that covers about one acre about two hundred yards north of the farmstead buildings. It overlooks the surrounding countryside to the north and west. Keyes describes it as "a quiet spot."
The timing for scheduling weddings couldn't have been better for the business, which opened on Oct. 1, 2005 as a petting farm catering mainly to school and youth groups and families.
With the help of about a dozen species of animals on the farm, the goal of Mulberry Lane Farm is to educate children on the importance of farm animals and farming in general.
Only two years after Mulberry Lane Farm began its first full season of operation in 2006, both a national recession struck and school budgets were being squeezed.
This resulted in a flat lining of school field trips - about 4,000 students per year - and forced the Keyes family to think about ways to diversify in order to boost attendance and income.
Another activity was added to the list this spring. Two area high schools - Hilbert and Stockbridge - held their proms at Mulberry Lane Farm.
An annual event is a picnic sponsored by the Green Bay Packers for its employees, including the office staff and groundskeepers. Some players also attend the catered picnic.
A Rented Experience
"Renting an experience rather than a space" is what has been such a major draw for weddings, Keyes believes. "It's a farm versus a country setting."
That experience includes a variety of attractions on the portion of the 123-acre farm that was designed for the children and family visitors.
Customary wedding activities can be embellished with sounds and sights of animals either during the ceremony or at the reception, catered dinner, or dance, Keyes points out.
This could be the farm cow Norma (a Normande) mooing. Pea or guinea hens, a free-ranging drake, chickens or a pair of peacock could wander by and chatter.
Riding a pony and taking the hay wagon ride are other activities ordinarily provided to visitors. Another major attraction is the 850-pound boar.
Other animals on the farm include Holstein calves, a group of riding ponies and horses, sheep, lambs, goats, a sow and young pigs, turkeys, rabbits, kittens, donkeys, and the farm dog "Lady Bug."
A portion of the farm land is used to grow alfalfa and corn for feeding the animals. Some acres are leased to an area farmer. A pumpkin patch is an autumn attraction.
Some of the existing buildings are used for housing or feeding the animals. For the most part, however, they are kept in gated pens adjacent to the buildings during the visiting season at the farm.
Big Barn Floor
In addition to the array of sheds and cribs, granary, smokehouse, and cream brick-style homestead house, the farmstead has a major asset in the 4,000 square-foot upper portion of the barn that was used primarily as hay and straw mows by the long-time former owner/operators - the Schwabenlander brothers Harry and Norb.
Keyes says the barn will soon need a new roof but the wooden plank floor and the hay mow beams and posts are in excellent condition.
The barn provides plenty of space for the setting of 200-250 guests for the wedding dinner and then for a dance floor. Bales set at the ends of the barn add to the authentic farm atmosphere and the beams, posts, and associated woodwork allow for decorations.
For one of the weddings, a 20-piece swing band was accommodated, Keyes notes.
She says that in addition to the activities linked to the wedding itself the guests like to entertain themselves by walking around to view the animals, which are either confined or have a free run on the farmstead.
Following a day on which 450 school children visited, Mulberry Lane Farm hosted a wedding on Saturday, June 1.
As the wedding ceremony was being held, a fruit tray of appetizers on the barn hill and bar area next to a shed awaited the guests while the band members were setting up in the barn adjacent to the dinner tables.
A Recent Craze
Based on her experience, Keyes comments that on-farm weddings "are the recent craze."
As additional evidence, she cites the decision by "Wedding Magazine" to choose Mulberry Lane Farm as a photo shoot location for its Green Bay edition in 2012. It can be found on the http://mulberrylanefarmwi.blogspot.com/2011/12/weddings-at-mulberry-lane-farm.html.
Photographers and many of the brides like the possibilities that the farmstead and its animals offer for wedding pictures, Keyes points out. Promotional material that she uses includes pictures of one bride holding a chicken and a young pig.
The father of this bride told the Wisconsin State Farmer that the entire event was "the best wedding ever" in his experience. He mentioned the multiple types of entertainment that were available to the guests during the several hours they were at the farm.
The Mulberry Lane Farm wedding phenomenon was also mentioned in the April/May 2013 issue of the national "Farm and Ranch Living" magazine. The article can also be found on the farm's blogspot.
Before the publicity generated by the weddings, Keyes had arranged a monthly promotional appearance on the Channel 26 morning TV show with host Jenny Evans in Green Bay. Titled "Bonnie's Barnyard," the segment often features one of the animal species at Mulberry Lane Farm.
The farm here is part of an extended venture undertaken by the Keyes family in the eastern half of the United States. Other permanent locations are on Long Island, in New Jersey and Maryland, Kissimee, FL, and Waterford, WI.
At the Long Island site, it is not unusual to have school field trips totaling up to 4,000 students in one week compared to about that number for a full season here, Keyes points out.
Most of the schools sending students to Mulberry Lane Farm are in neighboring counties including the Green Bay, Fox Cities, Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, and Manitowoc areas.
During its peak visitor times, Mulberry Lane Farm has up to 20 employees, who wear nametags identifying themselves as "Farmer ....."
"Farmer Cindy Isajiw" is the tour scheduling manager.
In addition to group tours, the farm has become a site for birthday parties, family events, and corporate activities. A gift shop is stocked with snacks, beverages, shirts, hats, trinkets, and jams.
Mulberry Lane Farm is at W3190 Calumet County B about two miles west of Highway 32/57 or three miles east of Sherwood. The mailing address is Box 160, Sherwood, WI 54169 and the phone is 920-989-3130.
The electronic media addresses are the www.MulberryLaneFarmWi.com Web site and MulberryLaneFarm@yahoo.com for e-mail.