Century-old Fox Barn thrives as unique winery.

July 22, 2018

Century-old Fox Barn thrives as unique winery.


Story and photos by Fred Inglis, Contributing Writer.

BENONA TOWNSHIP — The Fox Barn Winery celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer, and that iconic red barn is a major part of its attraction and success.

Anyone who lives in Oceana County can appreciate and admire old barns. While some are showing their age and are out of shape, many others remain symbols of earlier times when farms were the backbone of the entire region.

And just like today’s farmers, some of these former proud and vibrant buildings adapted, re-energized, and modernized to stay alive and useful.

For example, as a Shelby native I always considered the iconic Fox Barn on South 18th Avenue as the exact point where the fruit-filled farmland ends and the world of lakes, beaches and exotic adventures begins. That barn is now transformed and thriving today.

“The barn had a Fox name on it long before I was born,” says Todd Fox. “This place was always a farm and this will always be a farm.”

Located just one mile from Silver Lake that 110-year-old barn has many tales. It’s now celebrating it’s 10th year as a “laid back winery” where residents and tourists come to taste and buy a variety of local sweet and fruity wines.

“Ten years? Oh, yea. This is way beyond my expectations,” says Todd.

Todd and wife Kellie are the fourth generation of the Fox family to own the barn. It was idle for awhile, but 12 years ago they converted one corner of it into a produce stand because at that time their 10-year-old daughter Emily wanted a job.

“The tourists liked her because she could make change so well,” laughed Todd. “The barn itself was a nightmare, but we made a little money and could start to see its potential.”

The Foxes farm over 1,700 acres. They produce cherries, peaches, pears, apples, and plums, but Todd started learning how to grow a variety of grapes on a nine-acre portion of land that surrounds the big red barn.

“Our property is not on the best soil. It’s really better suited for grapes,” says Todd. “With things like apples, cherries, or pears we needed to add a lot of nitrogen. With grapes we don’t want any nitrogen. That’s good because we don’t have much nitrogen anyway.”

Kellie went back to school to study winemaking. She blends the grapes with the family’s other fruits and now proudly produces as many as 18 varieties of wine.

“Seventy five percent of our sales is from the wine I make,” said Kellie. “But at first I was afraid to work the wine tasting bar because, what if the people didn’t like it? But now I’m more confident. I know there is a flavor for everyone, and I’m always tweaking them.”

But the mighty red barn has yet another role to play. On Friday nights it becomes the backdrop for a unique free outdoor patio music concert.

“There’s no cover charge, but we hope people come by and learn about our wines.” says Kellie. “It’s a way to add revenue and share this wonderful atmosphere.”

Freemont John performs

The bright red barn is an important part of the winery’s aesthetic, but viewing the vineyards that surround the winery also adds to the feeling of being nestled in an ideal environment to blend nature and harmony.

“We tried it out three years ago, but only for one Friday a month,”said Kellie. “We’ve seen it grow mostly from word of mouth. So last year we started it every Friday from Memorial Day to Labor Day.”

Singer, songwriter, and recording artist Fremont John was the first-ever musician to perform at the Fox Barn, and he was the one who first suggested adding live music.

“Yea, I had to convince Kellie it could work, but it’s the kind of venue I like playing,” says Fremont John. “The first night we had 20-25 people, and she was disappointed but it’s grown. Tonight I’m playing in front of 150 people.”

Kellie hired her former Hart High School classmate Trudi Dillingham to coordinate entertainment and promotions.

Trudi brought in other talent like Greg Nagy. Greg has recorded several CDs with a full electric backup band. But the Flint native performs an acoustic solo show at the Fox Barn.

“I mean, how great is this?” exclaimed Nagy. “It’s a chance for me to slow down, maybe interact with the audience and tell a few more stories, to get a little more personal.”

“Two years ago it started raining so I finished my set inside the barn,” said Nagy. “It was really cool, I mean I can now tell people I played in a barn! The acoustics were great, too.”

“We don’t serve much food, just easy snacks,” says Kellie. “but it’s more relaxed than maybe a bar or restaurant. We get all ages. Kids can come, people can talk, and just soak up the open country scenery.”

Iowa resident Holly Daniels visited Silver Lake for the first time two years ago and discovered the Fox Barn and its outdoor patio. Then she returned with her husband.

“It’s our 25th wedding anniversary,” said Holly. “I wanted to share this place with him. It’s a great way to celebrate and feel like we’re in a special part of the world.”

Bill Kerkstark of Wayland, Michigan was a first time visitor and said the barn attracted his attention. “The building is beautiful inside, and when you come out to the patio it’s like, ‘Let’s stay here awhile.’ We didn’t even know there was music. It was a happy accident.”

Owners Todd (center) and Kelli Fox

The century-old barn had been used to store everything from farm equipment to truckloads of chemicals. About 60 years ago Todd’s uncle Floyd even tried to raise pigs in the basement.

Floyd, who will celebrate his 100th birthday in August, still laughs at that failed experiment. “We quickly remembered why we were fruit farmers,” said Floyd.

That same basement is now completely remodeled and used for different classes and receptions.

“In the late 1970s this old barn was leaning over and ready to fall,” says Todd. “But my cousin David Fox put in some steel beams, and over the years we’ve secured the whole building. It’s stronger now than ever before.”

The 110-year-old structure still retains its original integrity but now it serves a different function. Todd and Kellie Fox are also adapting their lives to the changing times and proving that if you “rebuild” it, they will come.

I couldn’t have imagined how this would have turned out,” says Kellie Fox. “It’s not like we had a master plan. But it is a pretty cool place to hang out.”

The free live music on Friday is from 7-10 p.m.

This story is copyrighted © 2018, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

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