GTPulse: Traverse City Couple Turns 1800s Farm Into Their Dream Home and Art Studio
One of the first things I noticed about northern Michigan when I moved up here was how many farms there are. Big, small, pretty, rundown, red paint, raw wood, abandoned, occupied – you name it and northern Michigan has a farm to match the description. Farm culture has transformed from its days of a necessary means for a family to survive. Of course, there are still family farms, but not nearly as many as there once were. What happens to all of those farms from times past? Many of them have gone one of two ways, wedding venues or homes. Converting a farm into a home is no easy (or cheap) feat, especially when not using a contractor and construction company, but that’s exactly what Colleen and Justin Shull did with their home Two Fox Farmstead.
The farm started out as the Dunn Dairy Farm in 1890. Although it once sat on 150 acres, it’s winnowed down to a roughly five-acre farm. The property has four buildings, three of them being old barns and one being the farmhouse that Colleen and Justin so reverently restored. The couple has just hit their two-year mark of buying the farm and the inside of the farmhouse has come a long way from where it’s been.
Colleen spent a portion of her childhood in Charlevoix before she and her family moved to South Carolina. Justin grew up in New Hampshire and the two of them met while both in art school.
“It’s actually kind of funny, we were in a drawing marathon where you draw straight for three days all day long. At one point they told us to exchange drawings with the person next to you, so you had to ruin each other’s drawings. That’s how we met,” Colleen said.
“We had kids out there and decided that we wanted to go back for four seasons. It was either New England or this region,” Colleen said.
They settled on northern Michigan and they knew they wanted to live in Traverse City for the rich artistic culture and surrounding beauty. Colleen had fond memories of the region from her childhood.
“We thought it would be fun to leave LA and have space, and have space and get a farm that we can put our own studio in. We went and looked at some farms on Old Mission first and Leelanau,” she said.
They weren’t finding what they were looking for. Both Colleen and Justin wanted to design something of their own, and Justin was eager to put the work in to accomplish it. A lot of the farms they looked at were already flipped. Justin and Colleen had passed the listing for their future farm over on Zillow multiple times. They weren’t interested in what looked to be a teardown project.
“It didn’t catch my attention. The pictures weren’t great, and location-wise we were looking at the peninsulas. We hadn’t really considered southwest of town. It wasn’t until a second trip up that I decided to look at this property,” Justin said.
The property was in bad shape. The farmhouse had been split into a duplex at some point and had tenants living in it when Colleen and Justin bought the property. Not only that but the 8000 square foot barn on the property being rented out as well was packed with junk, and likely was a hoarding situation. When builders came to look at everything they told Justin it would be a three-year project to complete and quoted him prices that were all over the map.
“I talked to a local architect who understood that I had a vision for the place and he helped me convert that into drawings. That really got us going. I ended up doing my own construction management after talking to several builders. I realized there was no way I could do this project if I hire an architect to oversee the whole project and hire a builder to oversee the whole project,” Justin said.
Justin had to step into a lot of unknown territories. He had helped renovate a few condos after college and had built tiny homes before, but ultimately didn’t have much carpentry experience and relied on teaching himself through books and the internet.
“Lots of Youtube videos, lots of reading. I kept saying that you couldn’t start with so little knowledge 30 years ago and have done it as quickly and gained that much knowledge without something like YouTube.”
Justin began the renovation in March of 2018 and completed the home in 2019. Wood floors, high ceilings, and white walls make for a modern farmhouse out of HGTV dreams. Using reclaimed wood from the farm has been important to Colleen and Justin throughout the renovation. They’ve salvaged details in the home like original doors, floors, and knobs, and have added details with the reclaimed wood like entryways and beams. They now have 2400 square feet of living space in their home, and 800 square feet of studio space in one of the barns.
“The one medium-sized barn was a tool shed, and I also rebuilt that building in parallel to this. We have a workshop, a studio and an office in that building. I still work remotely with the video game company so I work out of there.”
The studio is a place where the couple can paint, but Colleen hopes to open up the space to teaching painting classes in the summer. Below the art studio is a workshop where Justin works and stores machines and tools that he used towards the renovation and to tend the land. The next big project for the farm is to plant a market garden in the backyard. Justin wants to grow everything from herbs to fruits to vegetables on a small, sustainable scale to have fresh produce for the family, a CSA, and a future farm stand.
“We went into this thinking about how we could combine art and agriculture, and we would love to have giant gardens here,” Colleen said.
The name Two Fox Farmstead is an homage to their children Austin and Amelia and was inspired in part by Amelia’s enchantment with a movie called The Secret of Kells, where a young boy meets a little girl who could shapeshift into a white fox.
“One morning we woke up and they were fighting and they sounded like two wild animals, and Justin made a joke about how they sounded like two feisty little foxes.”
The family before the Shull’s owned the farm for 130 years. The Shull family is making their mark on the farm’s history, and the farm is making its mark on theirs.