URBANA — After Traci Lipps' husband died three years ago, she needed a reason to justify keeping the farm they'd bought north of Urbana.
She soon found one: partnering with Champaign's V. Picasso restaurant to provide it with farm-raised meat, eggs, vegetables and honey.
The collaboration didn't stop there.
"A friend asked me two years ago if she could get married out here, and I said yes," Lipps said. "I thought it would be a great setting for a wedding, field trips and other events."
So she and V Picasso owner Victor Fuentes renovated her large horse barn — a metal pole building that had been erected in 2007-08 — into a rustic event center.
It opened in June 2016, with her friend's wedding the first to take place there. It also was, in the beginning, the venue for an Illinois International Programs retreat and other events, plus farm dinners.
After Willow Creek Farm opened, several neighbors filed complaints with the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals. Last month, the board, with one dissenting vote, approved the rezoning to allow Willow Creek special use as an events center, with a number of restrictions, among them limiting crowds to fewer than 150.
Before the rezoning, Willow Creek was limited to five events every 90 days.
Though some of those neighbors might disagree, not necessarily on aesthetic grounds, Fuentes described the transformation from the Lipps horse stable to Willow Creek Farm event venue as amazing.
"If you would have seen it when it started and then see it now, what a transformation!" he said.
Though the barn remains the same on the outside, the interior no longer looks like a metal pole structure. Instead it resembles the inside of a barn, with old wood covering the walls and antique tin on the sloping ceiling.
Lipps and Fuentes salvaged materials from all over the state, with most of the wall siding coming from a dairy barn being dismantled south of Jacksonville.
The original supports inside remain — Lipps' late husband, Dr. Henry Lipps, had framed those with hickory. The hay loft had been built of wood, too. It never was used to store hay — now it's the DJ loft.
Another rustic enhancement inside the barn, near the main entrance, is a chandelier made from a hay trolley.
"We were in Oakwood getting barn wood and saw it," Lipps said. "We said 'We need that. It would make a great light.'"
The rural look continues in the restrooms, where the human stalls have stable doors and the toilet-paper holders are two horseshoes with the truncated tops of wrought-iron fence posts holding the rolls.
Lipps and Fuentes also added windows to the former stable, moved the main entrance to a different spot, and added handicapped parking spaces out front — there's also a large gravel parking lot in front of the property — and country-charm accents, some of which are used as photo backdrops.
A silo bar
After the horse stables inside the building were removed, the north wall was extended several feet to provide for more capacity.
The floor under the new addition is concrete, but the rest of the floor is original: concrete stenciled to look like red brick.
A kitchen was built onto the east end of the venue, with a bar between the two areas.
Just outside the cooking area is a cocktail patio — with one of the most unusual bars you'll see: a short silo with parts cut out for the counter and access.
"It was quite the ordeal to get it onto the property," said former Willow Creek Farm events coordinator Danielle Wilberg.
Near the silo bar, on the patio, visitors sitting at tall tables made of antique barrels or in more traditional chairs may enjoy a view of the pasture, where Suffolk sheep, Boer goats and small Angus cattle graze.
"We like to think of the restaurant as farm-to-table and this as an on-the-farm experience," Wilberg said.
But not too much farm: Lipps also raises Berkshire hogs for V Picasso but because of their odor, they stay at an Amish farm in the Arcola/Arthur area.
Lipps and her husband, who had been an ear, nose and throat doctor at Christie Clinic, bought the farmland north of Interstate 74 and east of Cottonwood Road a dozen or so years ago.
She named it Willow Creek Farm because she had grown up on a farm along Willow Creek Road in southwest Washington State.
"This whole place used to be a cornfield," she said of the Urbana property. "My husband and I built the pond, barn and house."
Before Lipps renovated the horse barn, she and V Picasso hosted monthly five-course dinners inside her house, actually a mansion. Those dinners now take place in the barn — the next will be June 23. Go to the V Picasso website — vpicasso.com — for information.
Besides food-related events, Willow Creek Farm welcomes children on field trips. Among the young visitors last year were toddlers from the Chesterbrook Academy Preschool, and members of the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club.
The Boys and Girls Club members will visit Willow Creek again once a week this summer, and enjoy their end-of-the-summer picnic at the 37-acre farm. Fuentes is a member of the club's board of directors.
At the farm the children take hay rides, gather eggs and feed carrots and apples to Lipps' five horses. The horses — her children ride competitively — now live in stables on the west end of the events center. (A wall separates the two areas.)
The young visitors also learn about the livestock and other aspects of the farm, such as bee hives and honey.
"Honey bees were my husband's hobby," Lipps said. "I never dreamed I would continue with it. He had only four hives. I have 12 now."
The downtown Champaign V Picasso restaurants uses and sells Willow Creek honey and uses in its meals the chickens, sheep and goats raised at the farm, as well as herbs from its garden.
At Willow Creek, Lipps does most of the farm work herself, with the help of two full-time farmhands. Her four children, Sarah, Dexter, Hannah and Kendal, help, too.
Lipps, who's 47, enjoys the new venture.
"I love the field trips, the little kids coming out," she said. "I love educating them about agriculture. They're so fascinated. A lot of them don't know where their meat comes from or their eggs, for that matter."
The new venture also has helped her psychologically after her husband's death from cancer. He was just 49.
"It's funny how grief brings you through something and makes it positive for you," she said. "That's what this has done."