Handcrafted history: Resort brings sustainable renovations to Iron Range lodging
BIWABIK, Minn.—Shawn Callahan had quit his mechanical engineering job in the Twin Cities and just returned from a backpacking trip in South America when he visited his sister on the Iron Range and heard about an abandoned Slovenian farmstead near Biwabik.
The 13-acre site had been part of a long-lost mining town now overrun by the northern Minnesota wilderness. It was 2002, and the place was for sale.
Callahan, a Grand Rapids native who was considering a move to Duluth, hopped on his mountain bike and pedaled out to the old farm. When he arrived at the scene, something happened: "I absolutely just felt this incredible energy from the property," he said.
The empty farmhouse, rundown barn and dilapidated garages had been neglected, yet still maintained a historic 19th century charm. Nature had turned a mining diversion channel into a new Embarrass River route; and wooded forest land surrounded the property. Callahan was reminded of the enduring beauty and character of the old buildings and deep wilderness he admired during his trip into the Andes Mountains.
"It instantly brought me back to the handcrafted places I was staying," he said. "I saw these buildings and thought, 'Yeah, this could be the place.' So somewhat on a whim I decided to shift my plan, buy the property and make a go of it here."
Callahan didn't know it yet, but that's when the Green Gate Guest Houses were born.
Years in the making
Sitting in the shadow of Giants Ridge recreation area, Green Gate Guest Houses now features two campuses, with seven different lodging options, including small, cozy spaces for weekend getaways or complete accommodations for a destination wedding party.
Callahan, working almost on his own, reconstructed multiple buildings on the old farmstead campus over the past 16 years, a remarkable accomplishment for someone who had no plan and no prior experience with home renovation work.
"It was really an evolution," he said. "The original vision I had with the two barns was to convert the larger of the two into some kind of lodging. At the time, I was thinking more of a hostel."
Callahan first moved into the rundown farmhouse, where he started restoration while working a variety of other jobs. With friends and family helping, new environmentally-friendly infrastructure was installed while character-defining features were enhanced with his own personal touch.
The process took more than five years as Callahan learned valuable historic and sustainable restoration techniques. Then it was on to the barn. The larger 1935 hay barn structure was almost completely reconstructed in 2007 using original and reclaimed materials, and a silo was added to the property.
The farmhouse, now filled with antique furniture and modern amenities, sleeps up to six people and rents for $269 a night on weekends. The barn, with an upstairs plank floor loft and modern kitchen built into the silo, also sleeps six and rents for $299 a night on weekends.
The transformation is amazing.
"I didn't necessarily have experience, but I had the mentality that anything is possible," he said. "I was raised in the environment of self-reliance and sustainability, and that definitely was a part of it. I looked at it: 'OK, this is what I want to do, and what do I have to learn to do it?'"
Callahan used Youtube videos, his education in math and analytics and a strong back to turn the farmstead into a historic lodging destination in late 2011.
The timing was just right. Green Gate opened just as book-it-yourself websites like VRBO and Airbnb took off. The location near Giants Ridge was an instant draw, farm-theme weddings became popular, and word of mouth kept people coming back.
Callahan put his heart and soul into the farm restoration. Doing all his own work and investing between $100,000 and $150,0000 per building, he maintained historic and architectural details, used sustainable construction practices and created a unique place. Everything is intentional.
"That's what makes it successful," he said. "That's why people come here — because there is only one."
But Callahan couldn't stop at one.
Space to fill
When mining operations near what was then called Hector Location ended in the early 20th century, the Miklausich family stayed to farm the property while the company moved about a dozen buildings elsewhere.
After Callahan bought and restored the abandon Miklausich farm, he started moving buildings back.
"I want to keep a very private retreat, and nature feel to it," Callahan said. "But with 13 acres surrounded by other forested land, there's more than enough space to put more buildings than I could ever do in my lifetime."
An 1890 log cabin was purchased, moved and restored on the Green Gate site in 2013. The building now sleeps 2-3 guests in all its rustic glory. Next Callahan discovered an old miner's house on a country bike ride. The stripped-down, 125-year-old log structure was also moved to Green Gate, where it is currently under restoration.
"Sometimes the buildings pick me. The farm also picked me," Callahan said. "Working on the buildings here was the first phase, then moving the two log cabins here; they were both somewhat serendipitously found."
And Green Gate is expanding beyond its Embarrass River location.
Callahan, 46, added more lodging options by taking over four Villas at Giants Ridge properties on Wynne Lake. He also recently launched restoration of a 1920s Main Street boarding house in downtown Biwabik, which will offer "apart-hotel" rentals upstairs with ground level commercial space.
"It will be historically renovated, very old but very new at the same time, which is what I do best," he said. "It had bad renovations done, and we're just stripping all that down and getting back to the historic bones that give it the character and the feel."
Callahan said he hopes to keep expanding Green Gate, not so much for the money, but to help educate more guests about historic and sustainable restoration practices.
After all, the Northland is full of wonderful old buildings that need a new life.
"It's a passion to be able to do this. I'm not the type of person that's ever been able to just stop, so I want to be very careful about what I take on," he said. "I want to make sure that it's good for me and good for the business; something that will be helpful for other people to experience and culturally learn from, build community and employ other people."
And as Green Gate Guest Houses grow, that sustainable, handcrafted and historic aesthetic found in old world South America gets a little bigger in Minnesota.
Visit greengateguesthouses.com for more information.
Mark Nicklawske is a Duluth freelance writer and entertainment reviewer