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Retired Moorhead educators turn family farm into thriving event venue

Over the years, as Mary Jo Schmid and Brent Larson built a new farmhouse, moved an old barn on the property and steadily made improvements at Crooked Lane Farm, the couple say they didn’t feel so much “retired” as “re-fired.” They’ve opened their doors to so many people — bridal parties, car buffs, blacksmiths and artists — that Crooked Lane has at times become a very crowded lane.

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Mary Jo Schmid and Brent Larson own and operate Crooked Lane Farm, a popular folk school and event venue, in Colfax, N.D.
David Samson / The Forum
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COLFAX, N.D. — It’s like a little pocket of heaven.

The tidy farmstead is nestled by the rolling bank of the Wild Rice River. A crooked lane — inspiration for the farm’s name — wends its way around a grove of trees to the site of a grand, old barn and matching red farmhouse. Hackberry, black walnut, red oak, evergreens, elms and cottonwoods flank the river and form a shady oasis in the center of the farmyard. Birds sing and squirrels scramble up trees, as if choreographed for a Disney movie. Meanwhile, an alert Shepherd-husky rescue named Maxine ensures all newcomers are herded in the right direction.

White-haired and gregarious, Brent Larson stops his John Deere lawn tractor to stride up to visitors and offer a sturdy handshake. His wife, Mary Jo Schmid, emerges from the house, flashing a wide, welcoming smile. A sign over the main doorway reads: “Enter a learner. Leave a friend.”

It’s easy to feel welcome at Crooked Lane Farms , an event center/folk art school/community center/wedding venue 25 miles south of Fargo. The farm has been in Larson’s family for 100 years. But after a lifetime of teaching and running Fargo-Moorhead schools, Schmid and Larson decided to retire and restore the farmstead nine years ago.

For Larson, the prospect of coming back to his boyhood home was a dream come true. It was less so for Schmid, a Twin Cities-born girl accustomed to the shopping and convenience of city life.

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““When we left Moorhead, friends would say to me, ‘You’re not even going to last a year out there. You’re too city-bound,” Schmid says, grinning at the memory. “But I love it.”

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Mary Jo Schmid talks about experiences at the Crooked Lane Farm in Colfax, N.D.
David Samson / The Forum

Over the years, as the industrious twosome built a new farmhouse, moved an old barn on the property and steadily made improvements, the couple say they didn’t feel so much “retired” as “re-fired.” They’ve opened their doors to so many people — prom couples seeking a picturesque spot for pictures, bridal couples and their families, artists and musicians, lefse-makers and blacksmiths, car buffs and couples celebrating anniversaries — that Crooked Lane has at times become a very crowded lane.

They won’t deny it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work to keep a 160-acre spread — with its acres to mow and numerous buildings, woods and gardens to tend —postcard ready. But this busy twosome can’t imagine spending their so-called retirement anywhere else.

“The rewards are offset by meeting a lot of interesting, diverse, talented people,” says Larson, who loves to regale visitors with the farm’s rich history. “I never wake up and say, ‘I’m caught up!’”

And his spouse, the former dyed-in-the-wool city dweller, agrees: “Now it would take wild horses to drag me away.”

On barn-moving and other great adventures

Larson had long wanted to share the bucolic country spot, with its orioles and hollyhocks and mature, vine-wrapped trees, with others.

His own grandfather, Jens Johan Larson, purchased the spread in 1912. Jens, his wife and their five children had traveled from Comstock, Minn., to the Colfax-area farm. They got there by either walking or driving two wagons filled with household supplies. One daughter, Alvida, herded the cattle. By the end of their long journey, Alvida said that everyone was so tired that “even the cow had to lay down.”

Larson’s father, Hjalmer, was born after the family settled on the farm.

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When Larson inherited the farmstead, he and Schmid initially discussed turning the farm’s original farmhouse into a serve-yourself B&B.

But after checking out the old structure, their contractor told them, “You can spend money on it but you’ll never catch up.”

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Interior of the home at Crooked Lane Farm, which sometimes serves as the couple's living area and is sometimes used by guests.
David Samson / The Forum

They tore down the farmhouse in 2013 and built the first phase of the new house. The initial structure featured an open floorplan with a spacious kitchen, rugged concrete floors and a loft. There also was a dramatic stone fireplace, which featured a mantel made with beams from his maternal great grandparents’ farmhouse as well as side beams from his grandpa’s old barn.

In 2014, Larson bought a 1943-vintage barn from a neighbor, even though the guy told him, “You don’t want that old thing.”

But he did. Through an ag tourism grant, the couple hired movers to lift the Gothic-style, 32- by 60-foot building from the banks of the Red River by Abercrombie, N.D., and transport it six miles to Crooked Lane.

“It looks kind of intimidating but (the movers) said it was a lot easier than moving a house, with a garage and an addition and so on,” Larson says.

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Brent Larson points out dates and initials of workers carved when the barn was first built in the 1940s into the beams in the barn's interior.
David Samson / The Forum

60 weddings, no bridezillas

Larson’s initial thought was to use the big, red building for storage. But soon after the barn arrived, people started asking if they could hold weddings there.

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At first, they resisted. Weddings seemed like so much work. What if they had bridezillas?

As more people requested the service, they decided to give it a try.

First, the barn needed a major renovation. “When we moved it and set it down, it was a disaster,” Schmid says. “But we had a really creative contractor.”

The builder retained as much of the structure’s original charm as possible, such as retaining the wire that ran the length of the barn and was originally used for hanging lanterns when the family milked cows.

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Mary Jo Schmid and Brent Larson show the upper barn space at the Crooked Lane Farm in Colfax, N.D.
David Samson / The Forum

Old beams from barn stalls were repurposed in places like restrooms. The men’s bathroom was also outfitted with concrete countertops, which were personalized with paw prints from Dale — the dog Larson and Schmid owned before Maxine.

A catering kitchen was added, along with broader, safer stairs. The first floor became a museum of sorts for Larson mementos, with details like photos of the original farmstead or a picture of Hjalmer’s confirmation class lining the walls.

Today, the second floor of the barn is typically used for receptions or dances and can seat up to 150. If an event is larger, there’s an adjoining pole barn with room for 200 more.

The ceremony is typically held in a lovely wooded setting beside the river. An arch is set up for the nuptials and benches arranged in a clearing in the woods. Maxine is usually an honored guest, sporting a collar or bandana that matches the bridal party's colors. She typically sleeps through most of the ceremony, but wakes up for the applause at the end — usually with her own barking ovation.

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Maxine, a Shepherd-husky rescue, is a mainstay at the Crooked Lane Farm in Colfax, N.D.
David Samson / The Forum

Some of the ceremonies incorporate elaborate decorations and string quartets. Some are more rustic, like the couple who said they would have a “branding ceremony.” (Schmid and Larson were relieved when they only branded a piece of wood.)

“We’ve had tuxes to big buckles and cowboy hats and everything in between,” Larson says.

Considering North Dakota’s volatile weather, they’ve been relieved that only one ceremony was forced indoors due to heavy rain.

The bride was beside herself, Schmid recalls, as she had planned shepherd’s hooks with fancy lanterns leading down the hill to the wooded area for the ceremony.

Fortunately, Larson came to the rescue. Schmid tells how he collected a bunch of logs and drilled holes in them to hold the hooks. Voila! The bride’s lanterns could now become beautiful indoor decorations.

“We’ve never had a bridezilla,” Schmid says. “We attribute that to the farm. Bridezillas aren’t going to be happy out here, because it’s too iffy. We did have one bride who tried to weed the garden. We got her under control.”

The Crooked Lane venue seems best suited to couples who want a beautiful location but don’t expect pristine perfection. “We say when you come here, you better not be too foo-foo,” Schmid says. “This is a pretty down-home, basic, rustic, have-a-good-time, kick-back sort of place.”

The couple who said they’d never host weddings now have 60 such events under their belt.

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The trail that leads to the wedding site at the Crooked Lane Farm in Colfax, N.D.
David Samson / The Forum

And weddings have turned out to be their most lucrative type of event. At $5,000 for a three-day package, Schmid says, “They are our economic boon so we can do everything else we want to do.”

Even so, they are also their most stressful event, as the owners fret about everything from comfort and safety to the weather. After all, a rainbarrel-building class can be rescheduled if there’s a storm or another complication. But a wedding takes so long to plan and needs to happen on that one all-important day — hopefully without hiccups.

From crafters and car buffs to concert-goers

For Crooked Lane’s first few years, Schmid and Larson continued living happily at the farm, relocating to the upstairs loft if another event — such as a cooking class or indoor concert — inhabited the first floor.

But the loft had also become the changing room for the bride and her attendants. One night, as the couple got ready for bed after a long day of work, they wound up fighting their way through a tangle of women’s lingerie first. It was draped everywhere, transforming their bedroom into a Victoria’s Secret dressing room.

The typically mild-natured Larson couldn’t take it. “That is it,” he announced to his wife. “I am not doing this — having all this underwear all over!”

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Interior view of the renovated barn space at Crooked Lane Farm, which includes modern restrooms, a catering kitchen and plenty of antiques.
David Samson / The Forum

And with that, the couple decided to build onto their house. A new addition on the north end added the large classroom that constitutes their Folk School, more restrooms, and an apartment reserved solely for them.

The Folk School offers classes in everything from barn quilts and lefse-making to dance classes and blacksmithing.

Another highly anticipated event is the Unglued Retreat, a millennial-friendly event in which people can take workshops taught by local makers, eat local foods and drink local brews, and enjoy events like visiting the alpaca farm located near Crooked Farm.

That’s not all.  There’s also a bi-monthly concert series, where concert-goers can revel in the musical stylings of local bands for just $5 admission.

It was tough recruiting bands to play at Crooked Farm at first, as it wasn’t well known yet, Larson says. Now bands so love the rural venue that some will even take a smaller paycheck so admission can stay affordable.

Every year, their concert season ends with a worship band concert, which is also highly anticipated by both the performers and the audience.

“We were so excited because we had 60 people at our first concert and we made 20 bucks," Schmid says, laughing. Now they can get up to 200 people who have access to a food truck and bar and can take in extra activities like car shows, a quilt show or a blacksmith demonstration.

They also partner with their neighbors, Bob and Deb Grosz of Dakota Vines Winery for the winery’s annual Grape Stomp and, weather permitting, demonstrate old farming techniques with a thresher show.

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The couple moved this old barn to Crooked Lane Farm where it now serves as a gathering spot for weddings, anniversaries and other events.
David Samson / The Forum

Retiring from retirement

The couple still talks of slowing down a bit; this time they must might mean it. “I think we are hoping that someone would come in and continue, under our oversight, and then we could actually begin to relax,” Schmid says.

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They have lightened their load a bit by hiring a part-time marketing director and adding reliable staff to help with the many details of running events and classes.

But for now, the couple is still having fun and they still are on the right track.

When determining what kind of activities to host at the farm, Schmid says their founding question has always been the same: “We ask, ‘What would your Dad (Hjalmer) think?” she says.

They are pretty sure Hjalmer would have approved seeing the farmsite become a place where so many people make wedding vows, connections, art and lifetime memories.

“I like to think Dad would have appreciated it,” Larson says. “He loved people.”

Learn more about Crooked Lane Farm, including their summertime schedule, at https://crookedlanefarmnd.com/

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Antique gems fill the landscape at Crooked Lane Farm in Colfax, N.D.
David Samson / The Forum

Related Topics: EVENTSWEDDINGSCONCERTS
Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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