January 2015
Homeplace & Community

From Mule Barn to ... French Barn

The French Barn, a reclaimed and repurposed mule barn, is now a memorable spot for  special gatherings.  

The light filtered dimly from the old, gray barn. The music was soft and the voices were low. Laughter was intermittent and spontaneous. Yet another night at the old French Barn.

Randolph and Louise Johnston never really planned to turn the century-old barn into a gathering place for family and friends. To say it "just happened" would be to downplay all of the thinking, planning and hard work that went into the barn’s transformation.

But in a loose sense, it did "just happen."

In the 1950s, Golden Johnston, the patriarch of the family, was one of the largest mule farmers in southeast Alabama. The barn, just behind the Johnston home on South Main Street in Brundidge, was the "watering hole" and corn catch for Johnston’s two dozen mules and good saddle horse.

Golden, like many other mule farmers, was reluctant to put his mules out to pasture and put a mechanical monster in his fields. He knew what his mules could do. He didn’t exactly trust a tractor.

But change is constant. Golden accepted that.

  Louise and Randolph Johnston never really planned to turn the century-old barn into a gathering place for family and friends; but, in a loose sense, it “just happened.”

After Golden’s death, his son and daughter-in-law found a purpose for the Johnston family home – that of an antique shop. Louise was very knowledgeable about antiques and had a flair for decorating and the shop flourished for a time.

Eventually, the antique shop, once again, became the Johnston family home.

"The house became a home again, but we didn’t have any mules so we didn’t know what to do with the barn," Randolph recalled. "We’re not sure how old the barn is, but the house dates back before the Civil War so the barn is 100 years old or older. We were surprised the barn was still in good condition, but we didn’t have a use for it."

Because of its historical significance, the Johnstons never considered taking it down. They just would make good use of it in some way.

The barn that once stored hay and corn became a storehouse for items for the antique shop, primarily big, heavy pieces – wrought iron benches, gates and railings. But, as Loise placed the pieces around the barn, a transformation began.

"Everything had a place," she said.

And, as more things were brought from the shop, the barn began to take on a life of its own. Louise could envision an outdoor living space - an area for indoor entertainment outdoors.

One thing led to another.

The Johnstons found a use for a couple of old sheds and a tenant house on the farm that were beyond repair. They used the wood from those structures to make repairs to the barn. And, Randolph lucked up and found a great deal on old large, solid bricks that had been cleaned and stacked.

Randolph Johnston created an outdoor seating area and landscaped it with native plants and Italian cypress trees.  

"We weren’t sure how we would use the bricks, but the price was good and the bricks would work well with the wrought iron and barn wood," Louise said.

Much like when Noah was building the ark, the townspeople were curious. They didn’t see how Randolph and Louise could make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. How could an old rustic barn ever be anything more than, maybe, a dance hall or honky-tonk?

The Johnstons were sure the barn would be neither, but even they weren’t sure exactly what it would be.

Not until they visited New Orleans and were keenly aware of the wrought iron and how it mixed and blended to create the look of France. When the Johnstons returned home to Brundidge, they named the old mule barn the French Barn.

But there was much work to be done before the French Barn was transformed into a New Orleans-style, indoor-outdoor entertainment area.

"We found a carpenter who could do anything and everything we wanted and needed done," Randolph said. "We were doing some remodeling of the family home, too, so we used several of the windows from the house in the barn to give it a more open look. We moved the kitchen appliances from the house to the barn and created a kitchen area out there."

  The watering trough, which was too heavy to be moved, was cleaned, disinfected and transformed with brick and wrought iron to become a serving area.

Some of the salvaged wood from the tenant house was used to build a bathroom, but the mules’ watering trough posed a problem.

"The watering trough was made from concrete and was too heavy to be moved," Randolph explained. "The best idea we could come up with was to turn it into a serving area."

The watering trough was cleaned and disinfected and covered with layers of brick and trimmed with wrought iron to give it a French look, too.

Randolph created an area for outdoor seating and landscaped the area with native plants and Italian cypress trees.

A front porch was added to give the barn a more inviting look and to also serve as another gathering area.

Transforming a mule barn into a French Barn was no easy task. It took a lot creative thinking and a lot of hard work, but the French Barn has been a place where many memories were made – memories of special birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and school reunions – including Johnstons’ 50th - but most of all gatherings of families and friends.

Those who gather at the French Barn, whether as first-timers or long-timers, marvel at the masterful transformation of the old barn that brings New Orleans to South Main Street in a rather sleepy little Pike County town.

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.