Six years ago, Jeff Nowak was on a motorcycle road trip with his brother when the pair pulled over to explore the 140-year-old Willowbrook Mill in Northport. He put it in the back of his brain that this would be the perfect location for a wedding. Someday.
“I fell in love with the feel of it,” says Jeff, a metro Detroit–area designer who works in the automotive industry. “The feel. The texture. The character. All just felt…right.”
Someday came in the summer of 2018, when Jeff and his fiancée, Tina Doepker, an art teacher, tied the knot in an eclectic, joyful wedding at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula.
To start, they gathered friends and family from all over the Midwest, who piled into cottages on the lake, shared beach rentals, and checked into local inns, adding extra days to make the destination wedding into one big, happy getaway.
“We wanted to do the ceremony in a very natural setting and keep it short and sweet,” says Tina. So the couple wed on a nearby beach. “The Lake Michigan shore is just very magical. Our draw to the beach was that it was far enough away from the hustle and bustle.”
Their friend Manjeet, who is Sikh, became ordained just for the occasion and officiated with a heartfelt non-denominational ceremony. A few folding pews and an acoustic guitar rounded out the scene, and the two exchanged vows in front of a simple birchwood arch next to a field of flowers.
Post-ceremony, guests were shuttled to the Willowbrook Mill for an evening dinner reception and dancing. Instead of a traditional seating chart board, Tina created an assemblage with lots of found objects and listed names among wooden architectural details, scraps of maps and textured papers, and interesting shapes from up-cycled containers.
Just prior to the toast, there was an unexpected wedding gift—a good friend from Italy serenaded the couple with a trio of opera arias. “It just shook you in your seat,” says Jeff. “We hear that people throughout the town heard it.”
For dinner, Abundance Catering helped the couple come up with an out-of-the-box menu with filet mignon, pork loin, lake trout, and portobello mushroom. “We loved that most of the food was gathered locally,” adds Tina. “That was really important to us.” The pair offered wines from Black Star Farms and L. Mawby, as well as craft cocktails.
Tina wanted to make the seven kids that attended feel extra special (and therefore allow their parents to have some fun too), so at each of the kids’ place setting was a sketch book with their name on it and a pencil. They also gave each kid an instant camera and a list for a photo scavenger hunt, and later they displayed their photos and got a huge goodie bag of treats, toys, and Michigan-themed books.
But the grownups didn’t miss out on the creativity. “We had a floral crown-making station, so anyone who wanted to join in on that fun could. The art teacher in me needs to make activity stations!” Tina laughs. The couple also had a large TV monitor where a live feed of guests’ photos were shown. They used a site called Tacboard so people could easily text and share photos with everyone on the spot.
Having two artists plan a wedding can have its challenges. “Sure, we had a Pinterest board,” Tina laughs. “We liked a little bit of everything. A little vintage, a little modern, a lot of nature … we had to tie in all these styles. The whole setting and experience was dreamlike.
“We didn’t have a wedding planner, but I think we nailed it.”
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