SMALL TOWNS: Marinette County woman brings new life to family farm

A love for old buildings inspired a Marinette County woman to transform her family’s century-old farm.
Published: Oct. 26, 2023 at 6:30 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 26, 2023 at 6:43 PM CDT
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BEAVER, Wis. (WBAY) - A love for old buildings inspired a Marinette County woman to transform her family’s century-old farm. Over the last 20 years, she’s turned her outbuildings into beautiful living areas.

This week in Small Towns, we travel to the Town of Beaver to get an inside look.

It was on this farm Mary Ann Dal Santo took her very first breath.

“I was born right there in that, in my laundry room now,” says Mary Ann.

And it was thanks to her dad being a little frugal.

“He didn’t want to pay the price for the doctor to come and deliver babies, five dollars,” says Mary Ann with a chuckle.

After growing up with her nine siblings on this land outside Beaver, Mary Ann found a career she loved. She spent nearly 30 years teaching special education and first grade in Wausaukee.

“I loved those buggers,” says Mary Ann, smiling.

When Mary Ann’s father passed away in 1992, the future of the family farm, established by her grandparents in 1905, was suddenly in question.

Mary Ann recalls a conversation with her mom. “About a year or two before she died, she said to me, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, keeping up with the taxes and the upkeep’ she said. ‘It’s just getting too much. I don’t know what to do.’ I said, ‘Well, you can let me have it.’ And she said, ‘Well, what would you do with it?’ And I say, ‘Well, I’d live here.’ ‘OK,’ she says, ‘you can have it.’”

In 2000, Mary Ann moved home with gratitude and excitement but also one slight concern.

“I said I knew I was going to miss the kids and I needed something to do, and so I thought, oh,” she recalls.

She had a vision.

“This is the first building and it really, it just grabbed me,” says Mary Ann.

The old chicken coop was in for a transformation.

“Do you remember chickens in here?” I ask.

“Oh sure, I had to come in and pick up the eggs. Chickens don’t like little people, so you try and get the eggs and they peck, peck, peck,” says Mary Ann.

With help from her older sister, Mary Ann turned the coop into complete living quarters with a kitchen, sleeping area and bathroom.

It took about a year, and aside from the plumbing and wiring, they did everything.

“We put all the tongue and groove in with a jigsaw, we did. It took a little longer, but it worked. You have to pound it in, you need a rubber mallet, and you really need to pound, and it turned out so nice I decided to do the granary,” says Mary Ann.

That’s right, project number two.

“This is my dad’s granary,” she points out as we walk across her yard.

And this time, Mary Ann’s repurposing plan proved to be much larger in scale.

She hired a contractor but also did plenty of the work herself.

“This is the original floor. I had to scrub that four times to get all the black off, and then I didn’t know what to do, so I thought I’ll just paint it for now and it held up,” says Mary Ann in a second-floor bedroom.

Within a few years, all three levels of Mary Ann’s granary had found new life, with a touch of the past.

“My brother shot that deer when I was 5 years old. It was stored in the barn. The guys that were building this found it in there and while I was gone they put it up there. I said, ‘I wanted a quilt up there.’ They said, ‘I’m sorry, the deer looks good up there,’ so I said OK,” Mary Ann recalls, laughing.

As for Mary Ann’s love for quilts, that all stems from a visit from her daughter a little more than 20 years ago.

“My daughter came in 2002 and she said, ‘I’m going to teach you how to quilt,’ because she’s a quilter, and I thought to myself, ‘OK, when you’re gone, I’m probably going to put everything in the closet and I won’t look at it again,’ and 20 minutes I was hooked,” Mary Ann remembers.

Since that day, she has stitched hundreds and hundreds of quilts.

And when she finally needed more space to display some, the time arrived for project number three, the barn.

“My friends are begging me to have a quilt retreat in here,” says Mary Ann as we walk inside.

And, once again, Mary Ann made it move-in ready while keeping the barn’s history intact.

“This thing runs on a trolley the length of the barn so you can put it wherever you want by that big rope,” says Mary Ann pointing to an old hay hook.

Unlike the granary and chicken coop, though, the barn so far holds one distinction.

“I haven’t lived in the barn yet. They’re all teasing me when I’m going to move in there, so we’ll see,” says Mary Ann with a chuckle.

In the summer heat, Mary Ann says her farmhouse stays the coolest.

In spring and fall, she lives in the granary.

And when it’s cold, it’s the chicken coop.

“This building is the nicest for the winter because it has south-facing windows, it’s small, it has in-floor heat, and if I open those windows on a sunny day in the winter, I’ll have 72 degrees with no heat on,” explains Mary Ann.

One farm, four homes thanks to Mary Ann.

And it begs the question, might there one day be more?

“I’m not too sure. The kids told me if I think of doing anything more, they’re going to lock me up,” says Mary Ann, breaking into laughter.