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The People Who Live in a MusicBarn
Mary Krugerud (2002)

Billee Kraut and Butch Johnson live in a barn. "That's how we're known," says Butch. " We're the people who live in the barn." If someone refers to it as the Fazendin barn, Butch gently corrects them, "No, it's the Dvorak barn." The distinction is important. When the couple purchased the spacious gray barn 15 years ago, they merely saw it as an opportunity to expand their home-based music software business, AABACA. But they learned that the barn came with more than just ample square footage. On their first day in residence, two elderly women in babushkas emerged from a house north of the barn and pushed a cart across their yard to a vegetable garden south of it. "Oh goodness, what have we done?" wondered Billee.

What they had done was buy a remnant of one of Hopkins' original raspberry farms. Most of the farm had disappeared under the nondescript strip mall and townhouses east of Shady Oak Road. The barn survived on the west side of the road, along with the simple white farmhouse, home of Gladys and Olga Dvorak. The two sisters had always lived in the house their father, John, built for his family in the early 1900s. Somehow, nestled against a wooded hill in prosperous suburban Minnetonka, on one of its busiest thoroughfares, they continued to lead the life of rural peasants - without city water or sewer or garbage pickup.

Their presence might have been a little too much culture shock for someone who had been reared in the Twin Cities, but Butch grew up in the very small and splendidly Norwegian town of Milan, Minnesota. "I knew who they were," he says, referring to the sisters' lifestyle. He grew up around people like that, people who lived in farm places "where you could have gone out and found this identical person - living on that farm and not going to move off it."

Gladys and Olga educated their new neighbors about the farm's history. The land was originally part of a Lone Lake homestead that their grandfather, Jan, bought from his uncle Vaclav Tipal. Jan in turn subdivided the land among his sons. The area south and southwest of Hopkins was settled by Bohemians and, like John, many of them earned their living from raspberries. In 1920, he purchased a Sears kit and, with help from a Mr. Tillman, erected the barn. Milk cows were kept, but the barn's main function was as a building for the farm, not as a dairy. By the 1930s, the market for berries had dried up - money was tight and raspberries were a luxury item, not a necessity. A blight, followed by a drought, finished off what few farms remained. John passed away and the Dvorak barn stood dormant for a few decades - cared for, but unused.

In the 1980s, real estate developer Al Fazendin purchased the barn and the eastern part of the farm - fields in which he had once picked raspberries. His development plans included a mall and a neighborhood of town homes. He needed a sales showroom, so he converted a portion of the barn into an office. Zoned (residential), the barn soon attracted the attention of city officials when Fazendin began renting office space to other businesses. Told that he had to live in it, he instead put the barn up for sale.

Most buyers wanted to convert the barn into a restaurant, which didn't fit the residential zoning. On the other hand, because it didn't have living space, buyers interested in living in it couldn't secure home loans. The barn again sat empty.

At that time, Butch, a music teacher, and his wife and business partner, Billee, were selling music software and computerized keyboards out of their South Minneapolis home. One day, on their way to a workshop with a car full of keyboards, they drove south on Shady Oak Road. "You know, we should buy that place," said Billee when she saw the For Sale sign in front of the barn. "We can't afford that place," scoffed Butch.

For Fazendin, the barn was a white elephant he was eager to unload. After arranging to have an apartment built in the barn, and clearing away other legal obstacles, they were able to strike a deal. Butch and Billee moved their home and offices to the barn, but they continued to use space in a local school to conduct workshops. That arrangement didn't always work, and after a trying day of struggling with an inadequate computer setup, Butch said, "IÕll just build my own lab. The heck with them." That's why a ten-station computer lab with cow-print chairs now stands where cows once filed into stanchions to be milked.

It appears that Fazendin was not intent on keeping the feel of a barn. Downstairs, the shipping and storage areas and the computer lab could be in any suburban office building. Upstairs, in a part of the hayloft reached by a spiral staircase in the silo, is the contemporary apartment. However, in one corner is a little granary section that still has its original walls and serves as their home office. Open a door in the hallway and you're staring at the expanse of the remaining hayloft, with its free-standing 1x4 framing and the original sling track. The large hay door has been nailed shut, but they wonder if it would go flying open if somebody pushed it too hard. "You'd have one big window; IÕll tell you that!" says Butch. On the outside, it's the double-windowed dormer and the silo that draw the eyes of people driving by. The barn's personality is so impressive that the modern touches scarcely register with visitors. Butch and Billee credit the move to the barn with helping their business grow because it focused everything in one place. It gave AABACA a unique identity.

Gladys and Olga were part of the barn's identity, too, and communicating with them was often challenging. When they disagreed, they did it in their Bohemian language. "You wouldn't know what they were saying," says Butch, "But you could tell by the tone that it wasn't nice."Once they invited Butch and Billee to accompany them to a turkey dinner at the Hopkins VFW. A reception line and name tags hinted that this wasn't just a regular dinner. A room full of elderly people welcomed them as if they were part of the occasion - which they discovered was a reunion for the Shady Oak School the sisters attended as children. Butch and Billee - the youngsters - were introduced as "the people living in the Dvorak barn."

"We met Minnetonka roads that night," Butch says. Bren Road, Smetana Drive, Feltl Road, Dominick Drive - all named after local farmers, these streets now wind through house-proud neighborhoods that haven't produced a raspberry in more than fifty years.

Olga and Gladys still grew raspberries, though. In another episode of miscommunication, the sisters brought berries over to Butch and Billee. Later, they came back and said, "Now, you know, that's $3 a pint." That's the way it was with them. They'd even bring berries over to AABACA customers. Gladys kind of liked watching the workshops, and she would bring Olga and some raspberries with her. Olga would nod off and Gladys would poke at her to keep her awake. Butch remembers Gladys coming up to him in the middle of the workshop and saying, "We need to go now; could you get the money for us?" So Butch stopped the workshop and announced, "Whoever owes Gladys, pay up, because they've got to go now. They're not going to make it to the break."

Eventually, Butch and Billee wanted to add a garage on to the barn, but the problem was the property line - it was too close for them to make a turn. At first they sought to buy the shed from Gladys and Olga and gain enough space for a driveway. The sisters agreed to sell and then changed their minds. By that time, Butch and Billee felt it was important for them to own the entire farm site. Finally, in 1994, they acquired the remaining land and buildings, signing a life estate agreement with the sisters to ensure that Gladys and Olga could live out their lives in the only home they had ever known.

For AABACA and its owners, the barn has evolved from a business place to a historical home to a theater. People, especially those living across from them in the town homes, react to the flowers in the summertime, the Christmas lights and stars on the silo, and the Fourth of July and Halloween decorations. "It's a stage," says Billee. "We are getting an audience, and the audience responds."

Some of their audience sees the barn as part of the community. Butch and Billee, living inside the stage, don't experience it in quite the same way. They have the Twin Cities out their front door, and rural Milan on the back side. There's an even an old cow trail in the hill behind the barn. Butch says that they really do have the feeling that they could walk outside in their underwear and nobody would know.

Settle into a sofa in their light and airy living space, and you would never guess that you were in a barn - until you lean back to gaze up at the ceiling and realize that the outer wall curves in slightly as it arcs up 14 feet to the ceiling. "Once in a while," says Billee, "I get a whiff of hay. Downstairs, there's a different smell. I can't believe that's just hay I'm smelling!"

Butch sees their living arrangement as a way to relate to the children he teaches. "Oh, you live in a great big barn!" they say. He explains to them, "No, I live in an apartment in that barn, just like you live in an apartment in your building." In fact, Butch and Billee insist that they often forget that they live in a barn.

No one else seems to forget, however. Recently, a friend of theirs, a "pretty good guy; a risk taker," a guy who had helped them move, told them "I never believed you'd make this go. I thought you were nuts when you first moved in." If he thought that, they say, then there must have been a ton of people who thought they were absolutely out of their minds.

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