Home & Garden

Cultivating community: Rural Cedar Falls couple repurpose heritage farm barn into cultural hub

Three Pines Farm outside of Denver is shown on Wednesday, June 29, 2016. Owner Kara Grupp, her husband and sons live on the farm, which was established by her great great grandparents. Artisans both local and international offer classes ranging from farm-to-table cooking to watercolor to metal working in an effort that Grupp hopes will bring the local community together to appreciate the land and the art of craft. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Three Pines Farm outside of Denver is shown on Wednesday, June 29, 2016. Owner Kara Grupp, her husband and sons live on the farm, which was established by her great great grandparents. Artisans both local and international offer classes ranging from farm-to-table cooking to watercolor to metal working in an effort that Grupp hopes will bring the local community together to appreciate the land and the art of craft. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — Barns were so important to settler Norman Rundles that he built a 100-foot structure before he built a two-story white farmhouse for his young family.

Rundles, his pregnant wife, Jane, and their five daughters traveled by covered wagon from New York state to Iowa in 1856, seeking to farm the more fertile soil of the Heartland. Their first home was a log cabin, across the road from the current home site.

In the winter of 1865, the pioneer patriarch journeyed to Wisconsin to cut the lumber needed to create the massive barn. He shipped the logs down the Mississippi River, then by rail to his homestead in the Cedar Valley, north of Cedar Falls. It’s “where the prairie met the woodland,” Jane wrote.

Not only was the task backbreaking, but while he was gone, three of his daughters died from an epidemic that raged through the region. The couple had already lost their first son. Norman Jr. was born shortly after they arrived in Iowa, and lived just shy of three months. The couple planted a pine tree in his honor, then three more for their deceased daughters.

One pine died, but three thrived until the 1940s, when they were replaced with what are now three soaring pine trees in front of the brick bungalow that replaced the two-story farmhouse in 1949.

Now home to the fifth and sixth generations of the stalwart family, the farm bears the name of those three memorial trees. A testament to survival and tenacity.

Norman’s original barn also still stands sentry, on a new split-face block foundation that replaced the original boulders in the 1980s. Once housing a lively dairy operation, it’s silent now. The cows have been gone for 20 or 30 years, but the exterior is brilliant red, with decorative scalloped white millwork around the roof and cupolas, added during the second generation’s tenure.


Inside remain “little pockets of history” that fifth-generation resident Kara Grupp can’t wait to explore. But that will have to wait.


She’s a little busy with her current project occupying a smaller barn lying a stone’s throw from its ancestor. Built in 1960, the brick-and-board structure looks like a well-manicured barn on the outside. Inside, French doors open to a beautiful melding of old and new.

Where the hogs Grupp lovingly calls “piggies” once snoozed and fed, visiting artists can snooze, educate and feed their students in classes ranging from pottery and artisan bread to weaving. Farm-to-table meals have recently been added, and Grupp, 37, and her husband, Forrest Stowe, 41, host family gatherings in the fully transformed structure, where a hayloft and exposed wooden beams hearken to its history.

The barn is now the community center Grupp envisioned the moment she stepped over the threshold in 2013. It’s also the perfect place to hold birthday parties for the couple’s sons, Anders, 6, and James, 2.

The hayloft has been reduced by half, and now houses a sofa bed, table and chairs for visiting educators who have come from as far as Japan. Massive beams were added to provide support where the loft once stretched.

The decor is clean and bright, with whimsical touches like two brass pigs perched nose to nose atop a midcentury credenza in the great room and old-fashioned aprons hanging from hooks in the kitchen. The walls are painted off-white, except for a pale sage in the bathroom. Appliances are stainless steel and flooring is a mix of wood laminate in the kitchen and bath and carpet in the living areas. Birds perched in trees add a touch of color on the framed screens separating the kitchen from the great room.

More French doors lead to a small patio decked with tables and chairs, surrounded by a rainbow of wildflowers. More plants and flowers adorn the indoors, reflecting Grupp’s love for plants. The walls are decked with family heirlooms, including a cabinet found in the basement of the bungalow and antique photographs of her ancestors.

“Pieces that mean something to us,” she said.

The window sills tell the story of well-built walls more than a foot thick. Insulation and drywall were added during the renovation, as well as heating, air conditioning, a full bathroom, great room, living loft and commercial kitchen.


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Even though Grupp said her husband has the “mad skills” to do much of the carpentry work, the couple hired it all out, since Stowe already has a full-time job as chief technology officer at a gaming firm in Cedar Falls. And had they done the work themselves, it might have taken 20 years, Grupp said with a laugh.

She demurs over the renovation investment, saying it cost more than they anticipated, but was worth every penny.

“It was not a cheap endeavor,” she said. “It’s one of those things where you don’t know what you don’t know. We’re the type of people who don’t need a lot of other extravagance in our lives. This is something we felt was a worthwhile use of our money. Something that would hopefully be a shining spot in the community and will last for a number of years.”

Grupp’s father grew up on the farm, but he moved away after college, settling in Reinbeck, and Grupp only visited the farm on occasion in her youth. Caretakers lived there for 50 years, farming the land for her father and aunt, and tending to the place. Three generations continue to work the fields.

When the caretakers decided to move to town, Grupp and her husband were ready to move, as well, from their home in Ames. A botanist, Grupp was working in a research lab at Iowa State University and her husband was commuting to Cedar Falls.

“It was very much a star-alignment thing,” she said. “It seemed like not that big of a move in our minds, but it was pretty big,” she added. “We visited it, and it just really felt like home. I saw this (barn) and had this idea for what this space could be. So we knew when we moved here that this was in our plans, and we wanted to get started on the renovations just as soon as we could.”

The family moved into the house in late July 2013, and did some updates, like refinishing the hardwood floors.

Renovating the barn took almost a year, beginning in November 2013 and wrapping up the finishing touches one week before the first class was held in September 2015. “We had an interesting week, getting everything ready,” she said with a laugh. “You know, somehow it all comes together. My husband and family and in-laws were so super supportive, pulling everything together in a mad dash.”



That initial class focused on cooking with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) products. It was designed to introduce students to vegetables they might not be familiar with, as well as to build up cooking skills.

“Local foods are important to me,” Grupp said. “Building out community around that is another way to engage people.”

Gravitating toward an educational aspect was a natural outgrowth of her heritage — her father and aunt are teachers — as well as her lab work in Ames, where school groups and students would come to see her work with the genetic evolution of cotton, and other plants in the ISU greenhouse.

“I really have to credit that experience a lot with this place existing,” she said. “We did a lot of outreach. It was really rewarding watching them come in, and they’d just light up when they see the plant firsthand or get to do something in the lab. It was such an enriching educational experience. That had a lasting impact on me.

“Learning can be really joyful and community-building.”

Through her connections, she’s been able to provide not only a teaching opportunity for artists and instructors in the region, but for class participants, as well.

“I have been really in awe of the talent in our midst,” she said. “We’re a humble community around here, and people don’t always want to trumpet what they’re doing. But if you sit down and start talking to people and making these connections, you realize there’s just a whole world here of artistry and excellence waiting to be explored.”

Classes are generally held once a week. Instructors set their own prices, averaging around $50 plus materials for a half-day class — a small percentage of which goes to Three Pines for basic operational costs, like utilities.

Food classes are the most popular, but other topics have ranged from kinstugi pottery taught by an artist from Japan, to weaving, soap-making and bookmaking. Local chefs also are invited in to create meals or make-and-take workshops.



“It’s a mission of community, connection, creating, preserving craft and learning with joy,” Grupp said. “I hope it’s a mission with a lasting impact, but time will tell, I suppose. But that is what keeps me going here — the hope that it will make a difference. I have been incredibly enriched by my time spent with those who have visited Three Pines. Both educators and students alike, they have all been very special.”

Her labors of preserving the past also cast an eye to the future.

Grupp considers herself “a temporary placeholder” for her children and her sister’s children, continuing the preservationist vision of her father and aunt. It’s a role she relishes.

“We were just blown away and taken aback by this wonderful (opportunity) — just when you think, ‘You know, we’ve always wanted to move to a farm.’ We’re incredibly grateful to be here and it’s so much fun having the boys here ... just to have an appreciation of that family history and agricultural history,” Grupp said.

“It’s just a very special place to us. We’re glad that it’s still around.”


What: Three Pines Farm

Where: 9611 Wagner Rd., Cedar Falls

Workshops: CSA Cooking Class, 1 p.m. July 17, $50, register by July 12; Make Your Own Yogurt, 7 to 8:30 p.m. July 26, $7.50, register by July 19; In the Kitchen with Laura Ingalls Wilder, 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. July 30, free; Zen Doodle Mandala Workshop, 7 to 9 p.m. Aug. 11, $20; Precious Metal Clay (jewelry), 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 24, $90; Nature’s Beauty in Silver (jewelry), 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 25, $90; Escape to Create: A Series to Stretch Your Creative Thinking, three-part series, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 10, 17, 24, $75; Intro to Woodcarving, two-part workshop 1 to 6 p.m. Oct. 22 and 8:30 a.m. to noon Oct. 23, $100

Events: Three Pines Farm Dinner, 6:30 p.m. Aug. 7, $70

Information: (319) 404-2942, Threepinesfarm.org or email kara@threepinesfarm.org



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