Our Vanishing Wisconsin Barns

Jefferson County, Wisconsin barn

Not like I’ve ever mentioned it before, but my work gets me out of the office in so many interesting ways. Like this past weekend when my husband and I roamed the countryside in search of the perfect “weathered, red barn” to illustrate an author’s article (more in the upcoming Fermentation Fest event guide).

In the meantime, here are some of the glorious barns we founding gracing our area of rural Wisconsin. This, my cover photo, I shot from a farm near Lake Mills.

Jefferson County, Wisconsin barn

First, let’s go back and start with…my barn!

Shot from the hill below, the cornfield is hiding the two eras of our barn’s foundation—the original fieldstone built in the second half of the 19th century and a cinder block addition built in the 1940s. According to a visitor from Old World Wisconsin, the original barn is a Pomeranian German style of architecture.

And yes, those are lightning rod balls. It’s amazing how they’ve survived generations of thunderstorms and young boys’ BB guns.

Old Wisconsin dairy barn

Here is my neighbor’s barn. It’s an example of what was old and new back in the 70s, when farmers added pole barns to their existing barns in order to increase their dairy herds.

As history goes, Wisconsin was “America’s breadbasket” before it was its dairyland. In the 1860s, however, an infestation destroyed the wheat industry and farmers were challenged to take on something new—dairy farming. Taking the barns they previously used for threshing, farmers raised them up and built a foundation underneath to house the cattle. Thus the “barn hill” was born, a landscaped incline had by nearly every historic barn in south central Wisconsin.

Jefferson County, Wisconsin farm

Such a pretty roadside view! Note the gambrel roof of this and my neighbor’s barn, compared to the gabled lines of mine. According to state historian Jerry Apps, the gambled roof became popular because it allowed for more hay storage under the eaves. I’ve always favored the gambrel as a traditional dairy barn, but interestingly, in this area we found more or the gabled.

Old barn in Farmington, Wisconsin

A few miles down the road from us is the corner community of Farmington and this very unique barn. Imagine the hay that was loaded through these doors back in the day.

Wisconsin dairy barn

Here’s an idyllic dairy scene! Located near Lake Mills, this obviously doesn’t fit my requirements for a weathered photo. From the road, this barn looks like it may have a poured concrete foundation, making it a much newer barn than others in the area.

Small barn in Jefferson County, Wisconsin

I think this one is the cutest, little thing ever. Old, yes. Weathered, no. Back in the day, farms had a multitude of small buildings in addition to the main barn. This barn is located near Milford and may have served as a granary or to house small livestock.

Weathered barn in south central Wisconsin

We wanted weathered? Well, here it is. This barn, now forgotten and without purpose, embodies the vanishing of our heritage as we once knew it. Maintaining old barns is horrendously expensive so they are left to decay. Paying taxes on them seems counterproductive, so they’re often torn down. My husband and I were amazed at how few farmsteads actually still have barns.

Old Wisconsin dairy barn

When one recognizes the brilliance of a barn’s architectural form and the stories it has to tell, even the old and weathered maintains an artistic beauty.

Fachwerk Barn, Watertown, Wisconsin

Okay, folks, here’s my last photo. No, this barn isn’t red. And no, I can’t use it for my project. But it’s a weathered treasure and it’s on our farm. This is a pre-1850 Fachwerk barn, a German style of timber frame, or half-timber, originating from northern Germany. According to those in the know, there are many barns and homes in this area of southcentral Wisconsin built as Fachwerk but now covered with siding. My husband uses this barn for his woodworking shop, where in my opinion, he crafts with the same heart men did long ago as they hand-hewed these beams.

So, what can we do to preserve our barns? What new purposes can we find for them so they don’t stand empty? Organizations such as the Wisconsin Barn Preservation Program are working to address these issues. And, of course, watch for Fermentation Fest‘s upcoming event guide. There will be many such interesting articles!

6 thoughts on “Our Vanishing Wisconsin Barns”

  1. I, too, am a lover of old barns. As I’ve trucked around the country and “seen ’em all”, I have always thought Wisconsin had the prettiest farms and barns. Interesting stuff, Di. I’m wondering how often you have to put a new roof on your old barn/workshop. That’s huge!

    • Rhonda, you could probably do a coffee table book on architecture styles of barns! Glen put a new roof on the barn 15-20 years ago. Of course we would have loved to do cedar shakes (he could have even made them with his supply of cedar poles:-). But the work and cost involved just wasn’t practical for us at the time. That’s the thing about old buildings, as beautiful as they are, they sure are expensive!

  2. I love your photos! I am currently challenging myself in August by taking a photo of a barn a day and posting it on intstagram. There is beauty everywhere; we just have to look a little deeper some days.

  3. Thank you for loading these beautiful photos. I left Wisconsin in the mid 1970s and was saddened to see all the beautiful barns falling apart when I returned in the mid 1990s. I haven’t been there since, and am afraid that the landscape no longer looks like my cherished childhood memories

  4. I live on our family farm, in the house that my grandparents built in the late 70’s. Their “old house” still stands behind the pole shed, but the barn was demolished in 2015. We all loved and cherished that barn and I took a nice photo of it, not knowing it would be it’s last. For Christmas one year, my parents had it enlarged and placed in a frame built from barn board my dad had saved. I would love to share a picture of it, but I’m not sure how to do so.


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