By Tim Alexander
CHILLICOTHE, Ill. — A central Illinois farm family has lovingly restored their 4,500 square foot cattle barn, originally built in the 1920s, as a wedding and reception venue.
When the 1980s farm economic crisis and Father Time let Clinton Nauman know it was time to phase out his family’s livestock operation, the Chillicothe producer scaled back his farm production to around 200 acres of row crops. After Nauman retired from farming a few years back, the 30-foot peaked barn, built from oak beams harvested from the surrounding farmland, stood largely unused.
In 2019, Clinton’s granddaughter Ashley Nauman decided the barn and surrounding land offered the ideal backdrop for her wedding to Joel Gollnitz. After successfully hosting the wedding at the barn in September of that year, the family had the idea to transform the property into a multi-purpose venue capable of hosting groups of 200-250 people for weddings, family reunions, social clubs, fundraisers, showers, parties, and work outings.
The Naumans held a grand opening to showcase the renovated barn and property in late April, attended by hundreds of area residents eager to spend a beautiful spring day on the farm. The occasion also provided plenty of opportunities for the family to reflect on their farming heyday.
“In 1963 we had some pigs out here, some registered Angus cattle and some chickens,” recalled Joe Nauman, 58, the youngest of five children of Clinton and the late Mickie Nauman. “When mom and dad bought the property in 1959 there were just under 300 acres of land, but plots have been sold off and now there are about 140 tillable acres. It was a common occurrence to come home from school and have chores to do, including feeding cattle and chickens, baling hay, or grinding feed.”
Joe Nauman remains on the farm, having constructed his home on the property near his mom and dad’s. He recalled how the family slowly drifted away from farming: “In the mid 80’s when all my siblings began to move away and it got to the point it wasn’t profitable to have livestock in the pasture, we stopped with the registered angus. We would just go buy a steer or two and feed them out for our own use,” he said. “By the early 1990s we had stopped buying steers entirely, but dad was still grain farming as recently as five or six years ago.”
Today the Nauman farmland is rented out on a cash basis to a neighbor who produces row crops. The vacated barn, the farm’s iconic windmill and quaint corn crib, and the beautiful farm property presented a perfect setting for a multi-purpose venue attractive to groups desiring to escape the city and enjoy a rural, pastoral setting for their events and celebrations, the family began to realize.
“The seed was planted in 2016 or 2017 when we held a farm auction to auction off the equipment. That was the first time we used the cattle barn for an event, and I made the comment that someone could have a wedding in there,” said Gollnitz. “Little did I know that in January of 2019 I would get engaged on the family vacation, and by the time that weekend was over my family had all the plans for a barn wedding underway. In March we began cleaning the barn.”
Renovations included thorough cleansing of walls, beams, and other woodwork, along with some concrete work. Nauman siblings, cousins and spouses, and neighbors all pitched in, working every weekend that summer to clean and pressure wash every square inch of the barn. They created an “open concept” look, with a rustic loft overlooking the main level and a crystal chandelier providing a portion of the barn’s lighting.
A courtyard was added to the rear of the barn and an old. knotty-pine corn crib was turned into a “ready room” for the bride. A built-in stage and pub area was also installed, along with an outdoor fire pit and social-style picnic tables. Though not all the amenities had been completed, the barn and compound were ready to host the Gollnitz’s nuptials by September 2019.
“After we had our wedding with lots of family friends and neighbors, we started to get calls about using the barn for this or that. The family had no intentions of opening the barn as an event venue, but suddenly we had to seriously consider running it as a business,” Ashley said.
The family decided to name their fledgling enterprise Top of the Hill Farm Event Venue and Gathering Place, a name derived from a wooden sign leftover from the mid-1960s declaring the property Nauman’s Angus Top of the Hill Farm. The family showed livestock under that moniker at county 4-H fairs.
“Mom and dad were both leaders for the 4-H Club, and my siblings and I were all very active,” said Nauman. “We grew up on 4-H projects from gardening to livestock.”
Top of the Hill Farm is located at 21427 N. Benedict Street, one mile northwest of Chillicothe (Peoria County). For information on renting the barn for an event, call (309) 966-8079 or visit www.topofthehilleventbarn.com.