@story MARLA CANTRELL
@images MELISSA MCROTTY PHOTOGRAPHY
The path to The Barn at Twin Oaks Ranch cuts through Dardanelle, a little town of 5,000, halfway between Fort Smith and Little Rock. Today, two barges chug across the murky water of the Arkansas River. The high school football team is practicing, and with the windows down, you can hear the thud of hard plastic as they plow into each other.
Farther along, the road changes. Asphalt, then gravel, then dirt. Cows dot the landscape, round hay bales sit in golden fields, and ponds, shimmering steel blue in the noonday sun, grow as common as horseflies on this country lane.
At the end of the journey is Lesleigh Smith, standing in the middle of a barn underneath a halo of chandeliers. Outside, her grandfather, Kenneth Davenport, hammers away, getting the barn ready for a wedding in just ten days.
Lesleigh’s venture started when the forty acres of land that abuts her family’s property went on the market. Her grandfather called her at her home in Texas to tell her about it. “My husband about had a heart attack. He said, ‘We are not moving to Arkansas.’”
But they did buy the land, and the trailer houses that came with it. “It seemed like a good investment,” Lesleigh says. And then Lesleigh’s brother, Lucas Cox, got engaged to Bayley Hepp, who wanted a barn wedding. “I already had the property, so I thought, ‘Why not just build a barn?’” So Lesleigh, who was born in Texas but spent most of her childhood here, began traveling back and forth, drawing up plans, and commiserating with her grandfather, who had built and plumbed his own house.
The plans kept getting bigger. “We added a patio. We took one of the trailers, gutted it, and turned it into bathrooms and a dressing room. I started a Facebook page for the barn. I put some pictures up, just of the ground being leveled, and a sketch of what I wanted it to look like when it was finished. That was all.
“My phone started ringing off the wall.” Another bride wanted in, even though nothing was built. “That got my wheels turning. I started to see how much of a need there was for something like this.”
At the same time, Lesleigh was starting to worry about the school her young son would soon be attending in Fort Worth. “I didn’t want him in kindergarten with 900 other kids. I hated to give up Texas – I love Texas - but the idea of coming back to Arkansas, where Kolton could go to a smaller school in a close community, really started to grow on me.”
And while she’d never built a barn, she did know a little something about throwing a shindig. As an events planner in Texas, she’d orchestrated everything from corporate trips to Rome to a barn wedding where Secret Service showed up, securing the perimeter, and dismantling the photographer’s camera each time she went to her car to get supplies.
“Senator John Kerry’s Chief of Staff was marrying Vice President Joe Biden’s Press Secretary in a barn outside a tiny little town near Fort Worth. I had to work with Secret Service, who shut down interstates and background checked my staff and caterers. And I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening. I’d say, ‘Just give me your Social Security number and trust me.’ Luckily, they all did.
“It went off without a hitch. The Vice President stayed for cocktail hour. And the barn was beautiful. I absolutely love the juxtaposition of rough and dirty meets elegance. I felt I’d found my niche. People started calling me ‘The Barn Flipper.’
“So, it’s been great to build my own. I’ve been able to spend so much time with granddad, who’s seventy-six, working beside him, getting my hands dirty. I even built a footbridge,” Lesleigh says, “by myself. My granddad and four of his friends have worked with me since November.
“We haven’t taken out one loan. Everything’s reclaimed, the tin roof, even the nails.” She points to the long planks that make up the walls of the 3,600 square foot barn. “These are old truck liners, made of teak, that we bought from a man in Beebe. They used to be the beds of eighteen-wheelers. They have these holes where they were bolted down, and when the light comes through at night, it looks like starlight.”
Across the way, in a green meadow, is a cedar altar where her brother will be married. “He wanted it in the spot where he built his fort when he was a little boy, so that’s where we put it. We’ll have the reception in the barn where there’s a fifteen by fifteen dance floor. You can’t imagine how beautiful it all is, once you get the tablecloths on and the wine glasses out and the candlelight.
“I have one bride who wants to alternate rows of chairs and church pews for her ceremony. A lot of brides want hay bales covered with white fabric. The altar can have a chandelier in it – I had it wired just for that. I try to make it as easy as possible. The packages I offer include everything but the wedding attire, the minister and the photographer. We can seat up to 220 people in the barn. I’ve partnered with local businesses for cakes and catering and flowers.
“I already have brides wanting to book two years out. I have one bride from Vegas – most of my brides are from out of state - who will get married later this year. She lives with all the glitz, and her dream was something entirely different.”
The breeze picks up, skittering across the trees. The sun blinks through, and suddenly it’s like a thousand shards of light are dancing on the grass below. Lesleigh smiles. “It’s always cool here,” she says. “If someone asks, I’m tempted to tell them my granddad and I planned it that way, that we built the barn on this spot, knowing the exposure was just right. But it’s not true,” she says. “It was just one more thing that fell right into place, exactly where it should have been.”
For more information, look The Barn At Twin Oaks up on Facebook, or call 817.925.0510