Couples find 'fresh Ayr' when choosing new Lone Oak wedding venue
When Teresa Gulleson and Melissa Oberlander were looking for a rural Cass County property to run into a wedding venue, Oberlander's dad kept asking them why they didn't simply use her grandparents' farm. After the friends and aspiring business partners finally relented and toured the family farm, they realized the perfect spot had been right in front of them all along.
AYR, N.D — Teresa Gulleson and Melissa Oberlander ’s first introduction to wedding-venue ownership had at least one nail-biting moment.
Although the owners of the Lone Oak Farm Venue had scheduled an eight-week gap between the construction-completion date of their new event hall and their first wedding there in August, carpenters still had much to finish as their first bride-to-be, Emily Freeh, toured the space a couple of weeks before the wedding.
“It looked terrible in here and it was a mess,” Gulleson recalls today, adding that she’d felt the need to warn the bride beforehand that it would still look far from ceremony-ready.
But Freeh seemed completely calm as they walked past buzzing saws, sawdust-coated surfaces and far-from-photo-ready spaces.
“I have 100-percent faith in you,” she told the anxious-to-please business owners. “It will be beautiful.”
And it was.
In fact, workers worked right up to the Aug. 7 wedding day of Emily and John Naas. But pictures from the day show a luminous bride and happy groom, posing against the gold-and-green cottonwoods and prairie grass at the farm; the couple exchanging vows in an outdoor amphitheater, and the newlyweds’ first dance inside the new hall framed by 30-foot-high ceilings, reclaimed timber beams and graceful twin staircases leading up to a window-lit mezzanine.
In short, it looks like a fairytale — complete with enchanted woodland setting.
The notion of a “doable destination wedding” is one of the main draws to a rural venue like Lone Oak Farm, which has hosted around 10 such events since its August opening. Its rural Ayr location is a good 45 minutes from Fargo and there are no big hotels near this remote spot. Even so, Gulleson says they are already booking into 2023 with couples throughout eastern North Dakota.
“It’s close enough to Fargo so that it’s doable, but it’s far enough so that it feels completely different,” says Gulleson. “Photographers kept telling us that people will love the property because they will get different pictures. We have access to 40 acres, century-old trees, walking paths and a lot of space. Our sunsets are amazing. We have had a lot of engagement pictures taken out here.”
Besides Lone Oak’s obvious natural beauty, Oberlander and Gulleson have built an 8,200-square-foot event hall, which melds elements of Midwestern barns with industrial chic and modern elegance.
They also renovated the existing farmhouse on the site into a bridal suite.
It all seems perfect.
Yet this site, originally the farm of Oberlander’s grandparents, Ralph and Helen Punton, wasn’t Lone Oak’s owners first choice for a venue.
It took some looking around to realize their ideal location was the one literally in Oberlander's own backyard.
Right in our own backyard
It started with Gulleson, a Sanford nursing director with an entrepreneurial streak. For years, the Casselton woman had long thought of starting her own business.
In 2018, she attended two rural weddings: one at Draxton’s Barn in Northwood, North Dakota, and another at the Firefly Event Barn in Nevis, Minnesota. “The feel of those events were like nothing I had been to,” she thought. “Both events were personal, beautiful and unique. These events seriously changed my life.”
That’s it, Gulleson decided. She would start a rural wedding venue.
But after sharing her brainstorm with a friend at work, her colleague told her she was too late: The owners of Fargo’s Grain Design were already building a beautiful new event venue, The Pines, just 10 miles from Fargo.
“I honestly was really sad and discouraged and my plan went stagnant for over a year,” Gulleson says.
Then a beautiful farm property came on the market. Gulleson hadn’t let go of her dream yet, so mentioned it to her husband, John, who she says is used to her “flights of ideas.”
He encouraged her to make an offer.
She didn’t get it.
By now, Gulleson had brought her friend, Oberlander, into the conversation. Oberlander, a social worker by training, had always enjoyed weddings and event-planning, so she willingly hopped aboard as partner.
As they looked at property after property, Oberlander’s dad, Rob Punton, asked why they didn't simply use the farmstead of Oberlander’s grandparents — located right across the road from the home where Oberlander, husband Jay and their two sons lived. Recognizing that Cass County family farms came up for sale about as often as a 70-degree January in North Dakota, the two decided to consider his offer.
Founded in 1906, Oberlander’s grandparents Ralph and Helen Punton moved to the property in 1951. They lived there — raising kids, welcoming grandchildren and holding family celebrations there — until relocating to assisted living in Fargo in 2016.
Since they'd left, Oberlander had sadly watched her grandparents' once pristine farmstead turn increasingly more overgrown and dilapidated. She loved the thought of the old place getting a second chance. "The wedding venue seemed like the perfect way to bring the farmstead back to life," she says.
Once Oberlander and Gulleson toured the farm, they saw potential everywhere. The poetic-sounding Swan Creek ran through the property and was flanked by mature groves of cottonwoods. As the farmstead included 20 acres of land, there was plenty of room to either move another barn on the property or build one from the ground up.
The farmhouse needed updates but was charming and sturdily built. Its sun porch looked out at a small oak tree, which had been given to Oberlander’s grandmother a decade earlier by a lifelong friend. As the only oak on the property, it would become the venue’s namesake.
From gravel pit to wedding vows
The friends and partners purchased the property in the fall of 2020 and hired Fargo architect Tyler Brandriet to design the event hall.
But much of their planning started before that. As neophyte business owners, they had countless meetings with Paul Smith, director of the North Dakota Small Business Development Center in Fargo. They researched every aspect from the average amount that North Dakotans spend on weddings to the rural facilities currently available. “We realized this area is lacking” in venues — especially in this corridor west of I-29, Gulleson says. As a result, they draw some couples from the Valley City/Jamestown area and many from Grand Forks.
The land had originally been a gravel pit, so the remains of the pit were transformed into an outdoor amphitheater with tiered limestone seating built right into the earth.
“The theater is also very different,” Gulleson says. “People have loved it.”
The main event hall draws its silhouette from Midwestern barns, but is custom-designed with a full caterers’ kitchen, full bar, restrooms, a coatroom and a projector/electronic screen for wedding videos.
A glass garage door opens out onto a patio that seats 50, along with a grouping of comfy chairs perched around a firepit.
The 7,264-square foot main floor is capped off by exposed trusses and reclaimed beams. Twin staircases lead up to a mezzanine area, which serves as a pre-ceremony groom’s suite.
Interior details include shiplap, polished concrete floors, repurposed timbers and black metal accents. Rustic, industrial and natural elements all fuse together, melding stone textures and wood tones with black quartz countertops, steel-cable stair rails and crystal chandeliers overhead.
Whenever possible, Gulleson and Oberlander opted to use local craftsmen and contractors. Dakota Timber provided the rough-sawn pine nickel-gap shiplap and rough-sawn fir beams and columns. Davis Designs created custom steel base plates and beam connections for the wood timbers. Hebron Brick provided the masonry. And Kemmco made the exterior barn doors and interior doors.
It would have been cheaper to simply buy from a big box store, Gulleson says, but the beauty of these finished details made buying local worth it.
Serving people a whole new way
Gulleson and Oberlander — along with their husbands, John and Jay — took on the task of transforming the Puntons’ old farmhouse into a modern bridal suite.
“We used lots of lipstick,” Gulleson says while guiding visitors through the home. The charming space includes an open floorplan, fireplace, numerous bedrooms and two bathrooms.
The old sunporch has been outfitted with mirrors, lighting and adjustable chairs so the bridal party can get ready here.
Wedding parties can either rent the bridal suite per day or opt for overnight packages, Gulleson says. Prices for renting the entire Lone Oak Farm Venue range from $4,500 to $7,500 for a prime-time Saturday spot.
As Ayr, N.D., lists its current population at 3, there obviously isn’t an Airport Hilton nearby for wedding guests.
Gulleson says they let interested couples know that they can get full charter-bus transportation to and from the event. They’ve also partnered with two Fargo hotels off I-94, so guests can catch the bus from those locations and stay at those hotels for discounted rates. Likewise, the wedding couple receives a discount on the venue.
Indeed, building a venue in such a remote location has presented its share of challenges. “We’re tapped into rural water, so any water that comes into the facility comes through a ¾-inch hose that goes through the house to here,” Gulleson says. “We have two ginormous tanks to make sure we have adequate water pressure if there were ever a fire and that we have an adequate sprinkler system. There was a lot of engineering thought that went into this property too, in terms of safety and adequate HVAC.”
Even so, she and Oberlander say that, as two people whose careers involved serving others, they feel fortunate to serve families during this milestone. “It really is a privilege to be chosen to be part of any of those life events,” Gulleson says. “
And for Oberlander, the location gives their work added meaning. "I have an abundance of happy memories on the farmstead and I am so fortunate that so many new memories will continue to be made here," she says.