Text by Sue Burns | Photos by Laura Tavarez Photography
There’s something very special about driving into Whitney’s Wild Oak Ranch. Turning off Highway 198 in Exeter, it’s just a quick jaunt to the white wrought-iron gate, where the view is breathtaking and the air serene. Visitors touring the property just before Christmas were greeted by friendly horses, cows and Buffy the Buffalo relaxing in green pastures lush from the recent rains, while a wider view included the region’s beautiful orchards and snow-capped mountains.
It’s easy to imagine how gorgeous the ranch is at any time of the year. Filled with bright flowers in the spring and summer, bedecked with jewel-toned leaves on the towering trees in the fall, and rimmed with the aforementioned snowy mountains in the winter, Whitney’s Wild Oak Ranch is a venue that provides a delightful combination of rustic charm and elegance for couples planning their “I dos.” Indeed, according to Joey Armstrong, ranch manager and event coordinator extraordinaire, “we want every event to be totally special for the hosts and their guests. If they come to see the ranch, they’re usually sold as soon as they drive up past the horses. We’re busy year-round.”
Armstrong wears many hats. She has worked for the venue for 21 years, and her family steps in as part of her team managing each event, from being at the house while wedding parties dress to setting up tables and chairs, from tending bar to helping in the kitchen. Their support reinforces the homespun cozy atmosphere and gracious welcome feeling of the ranch, which adds a special something to every party.
The property is a working ranch offering horse training and riding lessons, which gives authenticity to the ambience that guests enjoy. There are several locations for ceremonies and festivities. Perhaps its most well-known landmark is the Victorian mansion built by Leonard and Barbara Whitney, who originally lived in the home. Back then, they welcomed friends and family for weddings and parties, happy to share the beauty and allure of the grounds for those special occasions. After the Whitneys passed away, son Greg and wife Karen expanded the event capacity and opened the mansion as part of the venue.
The Victorian mansion features period décor and plush furniture that invites guests to sit and enjoy each other’s company and the views from the expansive windows. A cozy library, theater room and bar for the groom and his entourage, and large upstairs suite for the bridal party are at the ready. And, of course, the grand spiral staircase in the home is a priority photo opportunity for every bride. Armstrong is amassing an ever-growing collection of staircase portraits as many brides send them to her after their weddings.
In the mansion’s garden, a lovely gazebo, bridge and koi pond offer additional spots for memorable moments to be captured. Along the tree-lined walkway between the home and white-fenced pastures, horses calmly observe the goings-on, lending their beauty to the surroundings. This area is a most idyllic spot for weddings. “It’s a very special moment when a bridal party comes out of the mansion to see the ceremony all set with their décor, ready for their guests and their vows,” Armstrong said.
The Party Barn and Courtyard together can accommodate hundreds of guests in a combined indoor-outdoor setting. Inside, the barn features tables and old-fashioned restaurant booths, a stage/bandstand where a couple of Nashville bands have played, and a custom bar area. Historical, fun and quirky memorabilia line the walls. The open courtyard offers a rustic bar setup as well, with plenty of room to handle larger groups for dining and whiling the night away under the warm glow of twinkling lighted trees.
As for the menus, all catering (with the exception of wedding cakes) is done on-site by Armstrong and her team; meats are provided by Wild Oak’s sister business, BL Quality Meats (owned by Greg). In keeping with the homespun atmosphere, the food also has a homemade touch. Armstrong takes pride in making creative suggestions to clients and cooks each dish with care, right down to using fresh herbs from the ranch’s garden.
Cast-iron cobblers, pies and cheesecakes are some of her favorites to bake, and she recommends a dessert bar so guests can try them all. A long appetizer bar with crudités lining the entire front of the table is a visually impressive menu choice. With packages that include a variety of barbecue and hand-cut meats, poultry and fish, and hearty sides (think scalloped or country mashed potatoes and Italian or southern green beans with bacon), it’s safe to say that no guest leaves hungry. The superiority of the food is one of the best features of hosting a wedding at the ranch, and Armstrong is delighted when guests pop into the kitchen to compliment the dishes. “It’s always really nice when you get good comments.”
Five wedding packages range from off-site wedding and barn reception to use of the entire site. One feature that makes the ranch different is that Armstrong generally schedules only one wedding each weekend. This allows wedding parties to bring things in for setup on Friday, thoroughly enjoy their event on Saturday and return to clean up Sunday morning. It makes a big difference in the overall experience when brides and their families don’t feel rushed to make way for another wedding the same day.
Options also allow brides, grooms and party hosts to choose how elaborate their soirée will be, from very casual with plastic utensils and plates to more formal sit-down dinners with china and silver, with options in between. (Parties work with an outside vendor to select their table linens.) For Armstrong, the goal is to create the most special day for everyone, and seeing the touches that brides and grooms put into their weddings never fails to warm her heart.
Although weddings make up most of the events, Whitney’s is available for group luncheons, bridal and baby showers, business occasions and memorial celebrations. Private gourmet dinners in the Victorian mansion for up to 10 people commemorate special events in a unique way. There have even been a couple of proms, and Armstrong was happy to help with their menus, creating unique desserts like mini “pots de crème” (small glasses of pudding with tiny spoons) for the students.
She helps clients as much as she can with props and things from prior events, offering “ideas and supplies to clients that will lend creativity and save them a little.… This is something you won’t often find at other venues.” Whitney’s Wild Oak Ranch is committed to providing a stunning atmosphere as well as the special touches that add up to weddings and events filled with meaningful memories.