Seen from the road, the view partially blocked by towering pine trees, Mary Knoll Barn doesn’t appear to be all that big.
Turn into the driveway, though, and the barn—with its vast size and arching rainbow roof—rises up like a cathedral.
Built in 1920 by the Sisters of Saint Francis, the barn consists of two 60-foot by 34-foot wings of two levels each, joined together by a center section. Maybe 9,000 square feet per level for 18,000 total square feet.
There is room—and we know this because they were housed here in the ‘20s—for at least 60 dairy cows and 10 horses, and the sprawling loft can hold 200 tons of hay. All in all, it’s said to be the largest glazed-tile barn in Minnesota. (Glazed terra-cotta tiles, basically clay heated like pottery, were a popular and cheaper substitute for masonry during the early 1900s.)
“There’s not another building like this in the area,” says Joe Adamson as he walks through the vacant barn, which is located just west of Rochester on private property in rural Cascade Township. “I don’t know if there’s another one like it in the whole state. You’ve got to preserve it.”
And preserving it is exactly what Adamson, who bought the barn in April 2019, intends to do. In recent decades, the barn, which the sisters stopped operating as a dairy operation in the 1950s, was used as a storage warehouse for everything from furniture to boats.
Adamson doesn’t envision transitioning the historic barn back to its dairy heyday. Instead, he’s considering converting it to an education and events center able to host tours, weddings, and family gatherings. This summer, he hopes to establish butterfly and bee habitats on the grounds.
For now, though, he has his hands full with cleanup and repair.
“My friend John Kruesel said, ‘Joe, you’ve bitten off more than you can chew this time,’” says Adamson, a 20-year Navy vet who has gone on to work in various engineering jobs. Today, he’s added Facilities Coordinator for Mary Knoll Barn to his job titles. “But once this place gets done, it’s going to be amazing.”
Actually, the barn has always been amazing, with a story rooted in Rochester’s history as a world-class medical center.
When St. Marys Hospital was founded in 1889, the semi-rural location included sheds and a small farm operation that provided fresh produce, eggs, and milk for the hospital’s patients.
At the time, pasteurized milk was not routinely available from local dairy operations. That did not sit well with Dr. Charles H. Mayo, who was Rochester’s public health officer at the time. Dr. Charlie was an energetic campaigner for pasteurization of milk, eventually taking the fight all the way to the state capitol in St. Paul.
Never fear, the Sisters of St. Francis, as they have done so many times in Rochester’s history, stepped in to fill a need. In 1912, the sisters, who had founded St. Marys Hospital, established a pasteurization dairy farm, with 40 cows, on the hospital property.
Within a few years, urban development was encroaching on the hospital’s farm. In 1919, the Sisters decided to expand their dairy operation at a 212-acre site they purchased in Cascade Township, west of Rochester. That site was called the St. Marys Dairy Farm.
The barn at the new site, which became known as Mary Knoll Farm, was built by Albert Ramthun and his construction crew, a three-year project that was officially completed in 1923. For the next 30 years, pasteurized milk was delivered daily from the farm to St. Marys Hospital.
But by 1953, enough local farmers and dairies were producing pasteurized milk to meet the hospital’s needs, and the dairy operation at Mary Knoll was closed down. Eventually, the sisters sold a good portion of the surrounding property, which is east of 60th Avenue Northwest, for development as a residential subdivision.
The barn remained, though, and in 1980 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The design of the structure was one factor in that designation, says Ken Allsen, a Rochester architectural historian who has poked around at the site and studied its history. “It has a unique shape, it’s ideal for dairy farming,” Allsen says. “Glazed tile was all in vogue in the 1920s.”
Beyond that, Allsen says, “a farm operated by a bunch of nuns who run a hospital—that was the thing” that ultimately got the barn recognized.
“In 1988 there was a ‘For Sale’ sign on it,” recalls Adamson, a Rochester native who lives within sight of the barn. “I was in the Navy and I thought, ‘It would be fun to own that some day.’”
“Some day” finally came in 2019 when Adamson purchased the barn from Nels Pierson, a local Realtor and politician who had owned it since 2012. Pierson had similar plans as Adamson—restore the structure and run it as an event center—but came up against opposition from neighbors, zoning laws, and the township board.
For his part, Adamson, while he has some ideas in mind, has been flexible in describing his plans for the property.
“I’m working at the pace of the barn,” he says. “My whole thing is you have to preserve the barn before you do anything else. If you rush things, it doesn’t work out right.”
Adamson says the response his project has received from neighbors has generally been positive. “Some of them have said, ‘You should just bulldoze it down,’” he says. From others, Adamson has heard thanks for saving the barn. “They’re starting to see the results here and it’s a piece of history,” he says.
Ellen Christine Enzler Meyer, of Rochester—who grew up near the barn and made it her childhood hangout—says she’s been thrilled with the progress at the site.
“This is so dear to my heart,” she says of the barn. As a young girl, she played with the children of the family that lived at the farm, and helped them care for the calves in the barn.
In recent decades, she says, “I went out there from time to time and it made me kind of sad to see boats stored in there. I just figured that’s the way it was going to be forever.”
Now, though, Meyer is so optimistic about the future of the barn that she’s dreaming about it at night.
“I go out there and walk around,” she says, “and I have a hard time leaving.”
Construction and clean-up have been ongoing almost from the day Adamson bought the place. His Boy Scout troop—he’s been a Scout leader since 2010—has spent time completing conservation projects on the property. He hired a group of Amish men—led by foreman Allen Gingerich—to install the new roof. When Adamson needed help with a wall that had been destroyed when a silo had collapsed, he hired Key Builders out of Rochester, who have taken on a lead role in the reconstruction of that wall.
So far, Adamson has financed the work on his own, forgoing preservation grants that would not have permitted him to, for example, alter the original material of the roof.
“This barn has been redone so many times that it would be nearly impossible—and very expensive—to match the history,” says Adamson. “While our new roof was not original, it was consistent with materials used in 1920’s architecture.”
That roof, built of powder-coated steel, seems to change color—from a dark red through shades of purple—depending on the lighting conditions.
“This building is almost 100 years old and has had a lot of stuff done to it,” he says. “This barn hides so many questions. It’s been fun learning all the history, making all the discoveries.”
A new floor has been installed in the loft, which has an arched ceiling reaching skyward and large windows facing south.
“I come up in this loft and look at it, and it’s pretty amazing,” Adamson says. “It’s such a bright space. Usually a loft is dark. But this is like a church.”