When editor Nikki Bowman wed architect Michael Mills, they transformed their Canaan property into a perfect sanctuary.
As a magazine editor, I know all the venues, florists, cake designers, photographers, and wedding dress boutiques in the state. I look at thousands of wedding photos each year. I keep up with industry trends. And yet, when it came to planning my own wedding, I was crippled with indecision. I had so many favorites—how do I choose? Every choice I feared would be seen as an endorsement or a slight to one of my longtime partners. It was also the second marriage for both of us, and that brought its own challenges. We wanted to make sure our four teenagers felt a part of the process. It was downright stressful. And then a friend said, “What would you tell one of your readers?” I smiled and said, “I would say, what is your story as a couple? Use that as your blueprint.” And so I heeded my own advice. This is our story.
A Chapel Raising
When Michael and I need to escape, we head to the hills—or rather, to the valley. We are fortunate to have a small cabin we call The Tartan Chalet on six acres in Canaan. This is where we go to unwind, take long hikes with our black lab, pick blueberries, and fly fish. So when it came to picking a wedding venue that was uniquely central to our story, Canaan was at the top of the list.
The first call I made was to Erika Smith. Erika worked for me while she was a student at WVU and had started her own event planning company, Ella & Company, in Thomas. She met us at our property. “Let’s just do everything in the woods,” I said. “Keep it simple.” Michael, who is managing principal of the architecture firm Mills Group, liked the idea, but while I was thinking we’d find a grove of trees and plop down some chairs, Michael had a bigger vision. He said, “My bride needs an architecturally inspired chapel.” And that is what I got. Jill Justice has nothing on me.
When Michael put pen to paper, he designed an open-air chapel inspired by timber frame barns. He used barnwood and culled timbers graciously provided by Tanner Lumber of Norton and trucked to the site by Elkins Builders Supply. What followed was months of preparation. First we graded a serene spot in the woods using a friend’s tractor, and then every weekend, our children and our neighbors, Pam Eliopulos and Matt Padden, joined us as we cleared the forest’s undergrowth. We borrowed a chipper and Ventrac from Ben Neustadt of Canaan Valley Lawn and Landscape and spent weekend after weekend feeding all the fallen limbs and decaying logs into the chipper.
And then, over the course of two weekends, we hosted a chapel raising. Friends came from as far as Washington, D.C., to help us bring the vision to life. Michael’s colleague and architect Lance Muscara helped refine the concept, but it was not easy. The crew had to work within the constraints of rocks, roots, and trees, making adjustments as needed. Timbers were hoisted 25 feet into the air. No small feat. I’ve never seen anything like this chapel raising—and honestly, I’m shocked that no one got hurt. I’m equally surprised we still have friends.
Originally we had planned to hang stained glass windows in the bays, but after a trip to Hobby Lobby, we opted for decorative window frames with open fenestration. We hung them so that they appeared as if they were floating. We wanted the natural surroundings to be the focal point, so logs with unique burls were cut at varying heights and topped with Blenko glass candleholders and moss harvested from the woods. A small grove of maple trees became the backdrop for the altar.
Erika transformed the chapel into a fairytale creation—as if it had sprouted from the ground organically. Smilax and greenery draped the wooden beams. Ferns and white candles in glass cylinders lined the aisle. Benches were made from rough-sawn timber and log bases. A chandelier we salvaged from one of our properties hung over the altar, and market lights simulating gables hung from cables that profiled the open-air roofline.
One of our favorite details was the stacked cordwood wall that George Higgs and my son, Ethan, built after cutting deadfall trees into logs. Although George is a chiropractor, I’m pretty sure a chainsaw is permanently attached to his arm. The wall became a hobbit-like portal into the sanctuary nave.
Because it was one of the wettest years on record, the ground was saturated, necessitating a boardwalk. Michael used leftover planks and carved a path from the log wall portal through the chapel to the altar, and the mountain of chips we had amassed were spread on the ground beneath the benches.
The chapel far exceeded my expectations. The structure truly embodied the symbolism of a traditional church, open to the heavens, and evoked the spiritual connection to the outdoors that was so important to both of us.
Second marriages allow for more flexibility. We weren’t pigeonholed by expectations or traditions. I wanted to get married by candlelight in the forest; however, I didn’t want our guests to starve waiting for the sun to go down. So we decided to change things up and do something that we had never seen before—hold our wedding ceremony after dinner.
We began our celebration with a cocktail hour. Guests parked in neighboring driveways or arrived by shuttle, courtesy of Tucker County Department of Education. We served a custom cocktail—Tie One On—in honor of one of our favorite hobbies, fly fishing. Hors d’oeuvres of smoked trout on crostini, Appalachian pickled vegetables, and deviled eggs with bacon jam rounded out the offering. Dinner under a tent, decorated with tree branches, greenery, and market lights, followed cocktail hour.
Best Laid Plans
Originally we wanted to have dinner amongst the trees with no tent—just tables scattered throughout the woods. My wedding planner had a “Come to Jesus” meeting with us, basically bringing me back to reality, pointing out that we don’t live in an area with predictable weather patterns. Coupled with the fact that we were going to have to pay for a tent whether we used it or not, we changed course. And boy we are glad we did.
Finding a place for the tent was a bit of a challenge. Even though we owned six acres of seemingly flat land, once the tent guys from Masterpiece walked the property, we realized it wasn’t as flat as we thought. So it was determined that the best place for the tent was directly beside the cabin. Not ideal, but doable.
Another thing that wasn’t ideal was the cloudburst that occurred right before our guests arrived. Our photographer, Rebecca Kiger—one of the photographers who helped me with the very first issue of this magazine and who had come out of retirement to document our wedding—had just taken our family pictures when we heard thunder rumble in the distance. The perfectly clear skies darkened and then opened up, pouring rain. And if I hadn’t already appreciated Erika and her team, I am now forever indebted to her. She sprang into action, covering the dance floor, cocktail tables, bar, and signs, redirecting guests to the tent, providing umbrellas to guests, and mopping up water off the dance floor. She was drenched through and through, and yet, she always had a smile on her face. Our daughters and I were huddled inside, and all we could do was watch the weather radar app on our phones. It was a sight to behold. Someone brought me a drink, and all I could think about was how glad I was that we had instructed guests to wear shoes appropriate for soft ground.
As guests arrived, we heard stories of a stunning rainbow that arched itself over our neighborhood as they shuttled in. And then, as if on cue, the rain disappeared.
One of the challenges presented by not following a traditional outline of events was that I needed two gowns: one for cocktail hour and dinner and one for the ceremony and reception. Buying a wedding dress as a mature bride for a second wedding was much harder than I expected. I really struggled with it. The dresses I loved in pictures were not flattering on my body type. Connie Merandi of Coni & Franc in Morgantown helped me find my first dress—a short, sleeveless sheath with a tulle capelet, lightly adorned with sequins. She was a dream to work with and helped ease my anxiety.
I found my wedding gown at the Boutique by B.Belle Events in Charleston. I tried on dress after dress with my mother and my daughter as support. Belle Manjong had the patience of Job. I knew what I didn’t want—frills, lace, or white. Finally, I found it—a simple ivory fit-and-flare strapless silk gown by Justin Alexander with a chapel-length train. I wasn’t crazy about the train and knew it would never work out in the woods, so Belle bustled it and added a sheer, floppy, silk bow sash. She made the process less intimidating and, dare I say, enjoyable.
Choosing dresses for Michael’s two daughters, McKayla and Meredith, and my daughter, Abby, was less traumatic. They each chose their own floor-length style in soft willow green. My niece Bianca served as our flower girl and wore an ivory dress with a pale sage and navy plaid ribbon belt. Our black lab, Ellie Belly Truffle Shuffle, was our ring bearer, and she had her own lamb’s ear collar and leash. Michael and my son looked dapper in deep blueberry-colored suits. While Ethan wore a green and navy plaid tie, Michael, who loves to bird hunt, wore a special handcrafted bow tie made from pheasant feathers.
My dear friend Deb Hartshorn made our bouquets from lamb’s ear, ferns, and succulents. And because I love West Virginia handblown glass, we incorporated pale green Appalachian glass balls speckled with tan, orange, and navy into my bouquet.
The Punch List
Since I’m always telling couples to personalize their weddings with items that are important to their stories as couples, it probably isn’t a shock that a West Virginia magazine editor and an architect and avid outdoorsman would incorporate their love of all things West Virginia.
Our talented friends Deb and Jeff Hartshorn made copper trees as centerpieces, from which we hung several hundred glass balls from Appalachian Glass. Another way we honored West Virginia’s glassblowing heritage was by incorporating Ron Hinkle child vases as well as Blenko candleholders. Michael and I named the tables for rivers we fished.
I love tartan, and since the cabin is called The Tartan Chalet, we incorporated plaid scarves as tablecloths. After searching everywhere for affordable plaid napkins, I purchased fabric and my wonderfully crafty mother made 175 cloth napkins—and she is still speaking to me. I collect plaid thermoses and picnic baskets, and we also used those as part of the decor.
The antique blue and white Currier and Ives plates we set the tables with were symbolic for a couple of reasons. The collection began with plates that were my great-grandmother’s. My mother added to the collection over the years, and we ate off of them during special occasions. The pattern on the plates is of a gristmill. When my mother asked me if I was interested in the plates, I knew we had to use them for our wedding—I was marrying a Mills, after all. So we called in the troops on a massive antique hunt for more plates to augment the 40 my mother had. Michael’s father began combing antique stores in Florida and added nearly 100 plates and serving pieces. Not only did he bring them to the wedding, he even washed them all and brought them ready to use.
Our caterer was Dale Hawkins of Fish Hawk Acres Farm and Market. I first met Dale Hawkins at the Capitol Market 11 years ago when he walked by with a copy of my first magazine in his hands. My luncheon companion introduced us, and we’ve been fast friends ever since. Michael and I wanted dinner to be an Appalachian showcase—and Dale did not disappoint. We set up a buffet in our red canoe and served Marinated Flank Steak with Wild Mushrooms Melange, Ramps & Kale Cream Sauce, Apple Cider Brined Chicken, Watermelon Salad with Feta Cheese, and a Biscuit Bar with local jams, jellies, and honey.
After dinner, guests entered our woodland chapel for our marriage ceremony, which was officiated by our good friend and world-renowned blacksmith Jeff Fetty. Because of the rain that had occurred earlier in the evening, there was a dreamlike fog that threaded the forest. Hundreds of flickering candles and twinkling lights created a mystical and ethereal setting. It was the most romantic and magical moment of my life.
I would wager that 99.99 percent of all weddings that we feature in WV Weddings magazine end the night with some rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” I wanted to incorporate this anthem into our wedding, but in a unique way. So I chose to walk down the aisle on my son’s arm to an instrumental cello rendition, performed by Heather Hannah and Josh Stevens.
After the ceremony, everyone exited the chapel to the front lawn, where three fire pits were blazing. Shane Meade and the Sound, of Elkins, performed from the front deck, overlooking the dance floor Michael had built and painted with help—twice. Michael and I danced our first dance to “The Reason” by Colum Scott before cutting our delicious wedding cake—a tiered chocolate semi-naked cake with peanut butter icing—created by Bonnie Belle’s Pastries, which had provided me with the same cake when I celebrated the one-year anniversary of my magazine company.
My wedding gift from my husband was a red 1951 Dodge Power Wagon. We incorporated the truck into the decor, along with Michael’s 1952 F5 Ford, and served late night snacks—our favorite Mama Jo’s pepperoni rolls from Ranson—from its tailgate. Guests also enjoyed popcorn and s’mores.
Another one of our favorite aspects of the wedding was the bar that Michael designed and built in just four hours the day before the wedding. We loved it so much, we are still using it today. Our favorite bartenders, Josh Graham and Riley Lydon from Tin 202 in Morgantown, agreed to man the bar, serving local craft beer—Big Timber Brewing, Screech Owl Brewing, Stumptown Ales, and Mountain State Brewing Co.—as well as handcrafted cocktails. Dancing went late into the night, partly fueled by locally sourced moonshine.
Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. The entire evening was enchanting. As Michael and I said our vows, I looked out at our children and our guests and was overcome with emotion. It was perfect. Being surrounded by family and friends who had supported us on our journey together as a couple, seeing the mystical fog settle into the forest, listening to the night sounds of the woods, and feeling the power of our love emanate from our vows, it was truly spellbinding, making our happy place even happier.
written by Nikki Bowman Mills
photographed by Rebecca Kiger