Custom-built retreat, incorporating an old steel bin, now a haven on generations-old farmstead near Oslo, Minn.
Don and Marilyn Mathsen built a cozy vacation home out of steel bin and two farm-type buildings
OSLO, Minn. — For Don and Marilyn Mathsen, a plan to convert an old barn in rural Oslo into a venue for their youngest daughter’s wedding dance has turned into more.
It led to a trio of construction projects: remodeling a steel bin, which has been on site since the 1960s; constructing a new building that looks like a barn; and constructing another that resembles an old wooden farm granary.
Joined together, the unique structure makes for a one-of-a-kind, cozy home, nestled on a wooded patch of farmland that has been in Marilyn’s family for generations.
“This place has evolved,” Don said. “We took it over in 2002, after my mother-in-law died.”
Back then, the thistle was 5 feet high, he recalled. “This area was full of junk, brush, railroad ties.”
With an inestimable amount of planning and work, the property has “evolved” over time into a 1,350-square-foot living space, springing from the notion that the couple had always wanted to live on a farm. This site is Marilyn’s childhood home; Don grew up on a farm south of Alvarado, Minn. They started making plans for the residence in 2012; their primary home is in Grand Forks.
“It has become our vacation house,” Don said. “We jokingly call it the biggest, 72-foot-long, one-bedroom house.”
When the Red River floods in the spring, as it frequently does in this area, their home becomes “an island,” Don said. “It’s our ‘lake house.’ The lake comes to us.”
Many of the structures' design and use functions were determined by FEMA flood and Minnesota building codes, he said. The walls in the main floor of the steel bin, for example, have regulation-size holes to allow flood water to flow out, and anything on shelves on this level is readily moveable.
“We are definitely in the Red River Valley flood zone, with a rather high dike around the entire yard,” he said, but the dike doesn’t exempt them from the flood code requirements.
“We’re in a low corner of the section,” he said. “The water gets deeper here than most places.”
The dike, which is 8 feet tall and surrounds the property, “makes for a great walking path,” Marilyn said.
Building a farm home
The first structure they built on the site is a “new” barn-shaped building, constructed in 2013. It features a main-floor garage and storage area, and a second story with an open floorplan living and dining room space with a high ceiling. The room is lined with knotty pine and ample windows that offer generous vistas of the trees, landscape and wildlife.
“We did most of the building ourselves,” Don said. “We did a lot of the framing ourselves. It was mid- to late summer of ‘14 when we got this space finished off.”
The large room “is furnished as our ‘family history center,’” he said. It features a fireplace, flanked with bookcases that house, among other nostalgic items, treasured volumes of family history records dating to the 1600s. The home is made even more comfortable with radiant heating in the floors.
“The fireplace says, ‘Home sweet home,’” Marilyn said, and the place, in many ways, reflects their Scandinavian heritage. She and Don have visited Norway, where they made connections that have fueled their interest in, and collection of, family history.
The room is filled with antiques, family heirlooms and memorabilia, each evoking the memory of a loved one, such as the spinning wheel that belonged to Don’s great-grandmother, a doll that was beloved by Marilyn’s mother in the 1930s, and the high-chair that corralled Don as an infant.
“These old special things, they’re part of the gift of being out here,” Marilyn said.
“It’s fun to have things that connect us to the past,” she said, pointing out the vintage china hutch with rounded glass that belonged to Don’s grandparents, and the plant stand that graced her great-grandmother’s home.
A decoupaged letter, hanging on the wall, also has a story to tell. It preserves the earnest, heartfelt words of a father, written from his hospital bed, to his daughter in 1929. (This man was Don’s grandfather writing to Don’s mother). He was hospitalized in Warren, Minn., with an infection that took his life at the age of 42, Don said. He died, in the hospital, shortly after writing the letter.
Converted steel bin
The steel bin, sandwiched between the other two buildings, is lined with pressure-treated lumber covered by metal, Don said. The upper level houses the kitchen and a full bathroom.
For the kitchen, the couple chose narrow, tall windows and custom cabinetry and countertops to fit into the rounded exterior walls.
The circular structure required careful planning, especially in the kitchen, Marilyn said. In its past life, the 18-feet-diameter steel bin held about 3,500 bushels of grain.
“To anyone who is thinking of using a steel bin in a home, I would say ‘the bigger the better,’” Don said.
He felt fortunate to find a California company to supply a 22-inch diameter circular plywood window to place atop the bin, he said. A portion of one of the many triangular wedges, which fill the roof, lifts open for a person to crawl through and clean the window on the outside.
"That's my job," Don said with a laugh.
The lower level of the steel bin houses two, half-bath restrooms; the image of a rooster designates the men’s and a hen the women’s. The restrooms accommodate larger gatherings in the nearby 1950 converted barn where the couple has hosted events, such as picnics and wedding rehearsal dinners, for family and friends.
“I love it here,” Marilyn commented. “We’ve held several barn dances and picnics here. We held my cousin’s 50th wedding anniversary dinner here.”
The newest building, which resembles an old wooden farm granary, was completed in 2019. It houses a garage on the main floor and a bedroom, office and walk-in closet on the second floor. A crystal chandelier in the bedroom’s vaulted ceiling casts vibrant multi-colored prisms of light, from the east-facing windows, onto the walls and ceiling.
“We did all the finishing, up to the cupola, and painted (the bedroom) three times,” Marilyn said.
Here, too, sweet reminders of the family’s history decorate the room with personality: a baby crib, an immigrant’s trunk from Norway, and framed embroidery with the words of a children’s bedtime prayer, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.” Her grandmother ran out of black thread, mid-word, and completed the prayer with gray thread, Marilyn said. “They were marooned at home, because of the flood, and she couldn’t go and buy more thread ... The flood is the story of our lives.”
The framed piece still brings a smile to her face.
This farm home is something of a sanctuary for the couple when they want to get away from the busy-ness in Grand Forks. They are drawn to the peace, quiet and solitude of the farmstead, which has been especially important during the pandemic.
"We spent more time here when we were in quarantine with COVID," Don said.
As they designed the structures on this site, the Mathsens were mindful about “keeping the farm architecture, because those buildings are fading” from the rural landscape, Don said. The design of the granary-like building and the gambrel roof design on the new barn-like structure testify to that commitment.
They also wanted to give the interiors a “Scandinavian touch,” which is evident in the choice of lighter woods, clean lines, and a pale color pallet.
But, after all this work and effort, they may not be entirely finished with projects to enhance their rural refuge.
“We’ve talked about building a sauna and greenhouse,” Don said with a smile.