Denise Barstow got married in a cow pasture wearing a custom-made satin gown.Not just any gown, mind you: It’s an heirloom worn first by her grandmother and then by her mother. Her father, sixth-generation dairy farmer David Barstow of Hadley, walked her down the mowed path that served as the aisle for her wedding on Oct. 16.
In a unique mash-up of the elegant with the rustic, formal attire and casual footwear ruled the day. The 30-year-old bride wore Teva sandals and toasted the event with chocolate milk.
“I couldn’t imagine not having Barstow burgers,” she said of the menu for the wedding dinner. “And my cousin Shannon’s carrot cake.”
In a framed note on the display table, Denise described her mom and “Meme” (grandmother in French) as her heroes — women “involved in their communities, generous in spirit, and forever youthful.”
Coincidentally, Denise grew up and now lives in a farmhouse in Hadley at the base of Skinner State Park, named for the very same Skinners who manufactured Meme’s gown. Satin is the weave of the fabric, giving it its characteristic shiny topside and duller finish underneath.
Although modern manufacturers use synthetics such as polyester to produce satin gowns, Barstow’s grandmother, Faith St. Onge, 88, of South Hadley, came of age in an era of Hollywood glamour. Stars of the silver screen such as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis wore gowns made of Skinner satin. Faith grew up in Philadelphia but spent summers at her grandmother’s farm in Ware.
“I loved the farm,” she said. “I learned how to drive a tractor.”
During one of those summers, Faith met a young man named Richard “Dick” St. Onge. She and Dick dated for the rest of the summer.
“I fell head over heels in love with him,” she recalled. “Then I didn’t see him for four years.”
Dick served in the Korean War while Faith worked as a secretary in Philadelphia. For the next four years, the two corresponded by mail. Altogether, he sent her about 500 letters, with her responding to each one. When he got home from the Navy, they put their 1,000 letters together in one box.
Then Dick, a toolmaker by trade, proposed, and Faith found a woman to make her gown. The seamstress asked her to draw a picture of what she envisioned on a piece of loose-leaf paper. The bride-to-be asked for her gown to be made of Skinner satin and to have a separate skirt.
“I was so frugal,” she said. “I didn’t want something I could just wear once. I thought I could wear a white satin skirt in the winter with black velvet.”
The seamstress took Faith’s measurements and chose a high collar and long sleeves that came down in a point to compliment her 5-foot-7-inch frame. Two weeks later, Faith picked up the dress, which cost $85 (equivalent to about $800 today.) Since it featured some 20 covered buttons, she considered the price reasonable.
After getting married on June 26, 1954, the newlyweds settled in East Longmeadow where they raised their two children. Daughter Paula Barstow remembers first seeing the dress in a framed picture on the wall of the family’s living room. Sometimes, in the course of growing up, she wore it to play dress-up.
“I always looked at that picture of mom and thought, ‘That’s what a bride looks like,’” said Paula, 61. Because the long-sleeve gown was so warm, she decided on a date in late September for her marriage to David Barstow.
She paid more to have the gown cleaned — about $90 — than her mom paid to have it made. Then Paula brought it to a seamstress who noticed a few “dings” in the fabric from its time in and out of the suitcase. She covered up the spots with pearls and lace applique, which gave the dress its own character.
Paula and David got married in the fall of 1989, then raised two daughters in the house at the foot of Skinner State Park. Paula stored her wedding dress in the tallest closet, which happened to be in daughter Denise’s room.
Denise tried on the gown as a teenager. “It fit me like a glove,” she recalled.
In the early 2000s, she also worked at the family’s new farmstand. “The hard work I did was essential to the person I am today,” she said.
However, as much as she enjoyed growing up on the land, playing with her cousins in the hayloft and hanging out with the cows, she expected to make a career for herself outside the farm. After graduating from the University of New Hampshire, she and her college boyfriend Dylan Manz worked at Glacier National Park in Montana.
“That’s where it hit me,” she said. “Sometimes you need distance to realize what’s important. I needed to be supporting the place where I had roots.”
For their wedding day, she bought a sleeveless dress to wear under the long-sleeve satin gown so she could slip it off and dance the night away. In keeping with the efficiency she learned as a farmer’s daughter, she picked up her dress from David’s Bridal along with an order of Cabot cheese for the farmstand.
She also made sure she had something old (the satin gown), something new (the sleeveless dress from David’s Bridal), something borrowed (a friendship bracelet she made for Dylan the first year they were dating), and something blue (a ring from her grandfather, Meme’s husband, who died in 2004).
“I’m so proud of Denise,” Paula said. “For her to show such respect and love for her lineage was just delightful for me.”
These days, Denise heads up marketing and education for Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery in Hadley. Looking ahead, she sees children in her future with Dylan. They both took the last name “Barstow Manz” to reflect their identity as a team.
“If we have a daughter, I won’t put any pressure on her to wear the dress,” she said. “It’s her day.”