"They tell me the flames went high in the sky and the farmstead was full of fire trucks," Dave Williams says. "I was home and didn't see it but the two barns are gone and the farm field nearby is full of water."
Williams was referring to the early morning fire of June 11 that destroyed two of the historic dairy barns on the former Wern Farms dairy in Genessee township in Waukesha county. News sources describe the fire as at a pheasant barn at the Wern Valley Sportsmans Club in which 600 baby pheasants were lost.
Not a big deal, one might say. Yes, it was a big fire with a couple of dozen fire departments involved, but, one of the barns was empty and what are a few pheasants on a game farm?
THE REAL STORY
One of the two barns that burned was the famed three-story dairy barn at Wern Farms, the one-time 650-cow operation, owned by the William's family since 1848. At one time, the farm supplied milk via some 75 door-to-door trucks in southeastern Wisconsin and by train into Milwaukee and Chicago.
Regular readers will know that over the years I've written about Wern Farms, Brook Hill Dairy and Keystone Farm, located within a couple of miles of each other, that were the mega dairies of Wisconsin from about 1920-70.
In addition to Wern Farms 650 cows, Brook Hill milked 900 cows and Keystone in the 300-cow range All were owned by families that had came to the U.S. from Wales in the mid-1800s and established dairy farms in the early days of Wisconsin dairying. The three-some were noted for producing certified raw milk for consumers who didn't want pasteurized milk.
I traveled to Wern Farms last week and talked with Dave Williams, the last manager of the former 2000-acre dairy, took some pictures and talked history with Dave who remembers the dairy operation very well.
"Why a three story dairy barn - maybe the only one anywhere" I asked?
"I don't have a clue," Williams says. "The three-story barn was built on the side of a hill in the '20s. There were 50 cows on each floor with a haymow on top and an elevator (for people) connecting. It was a tough facility to dairy in because of the difficulty of getting in and out of the second floor - the first floor wasn't much better."
The three-story barn was called Barn 3, William explains. The fire started in Barn 4, next to, but not connected, probably from the brooders used to raise young pheasants. This barn was completely destroyed.
The fire jumped over the driveway between the barns and onlookers said the flames rose high above the tall Barn 4 but somehow the concrete second floor still stands. "I don't know how," Williams says. "Nor, can I figure out why Barn 2, connected to the west end of the three-story barn didn't burn."
Dave says his nephew Steve Williams who operates Wern Valley Sportsman Club had removed thousands of young pheasants from Barn 4 the day before the fire.
The yellow, three-story dairy barn is now a burned shell and will shortly be leveled - a piece of Wisconsin dairy history is gone!
A GHOSTLY EXPERIENCE
I last visited the former Wern Farms dairy in September 2012 and was again awed by the emptiness of the three-story barn. The stanchions were gone but the empty gutters and silent barn cleaner were patiently awaiting their next herd of cows.
While snapping pictures, I heard someone yelling, somewhere in the empty structure, and almost dropped my camera and a shiver ran down my spine. I didn't know what to make of it knowing the barn had been vacant for at least 40 years.
Dave, who had waited in his pickup laughed when I told him what I'd heard inside. "There's no one in there," he said. "The electricity has been off for decades and the stairway is unsafe - maybe it's a ghost."
Maybe - I certainly didn't see anyone or any remnants of human activity but I'm very sure it wasn't my imagination.
I first visited (and wrote about) the three dairy farms in 1995 when I talked with the three owners: Bob Rowlands of Keystone, Copeland Green of Brook Hill and Dave Williams of Wern Farms. They admitted that the dairies were many years ahead of their time in terms of being ultra modern, cutting-edge and producing quality milk.
Each dairy took advantage of a strong (but limited) demand for raw milk by producing "Certified Milk," something that few, if anyone will remember. This was just before pasteurization became the norm in Wisconsin and some consumers were wary of the new process as being "unnatural" and too "scientific" for their tastes.
"The rules and regulations were unbelievable," Rowlands said. "Our milkers wore white uniforms and hats, and took monthly physicals including throat cultures."
Because of the susceptibility of cattle to Bangs disease (undulant fever in humans) and tuberculosis, our herds had to be free of these diseases, Williams added. "We each had our own laboratories on the farm."
The three dairies were successful for a long time: Keystone Farm was founded in 1853 and dispersed the herd in 1971 but some of its facilities are still used for bottling different products; Brook Hill ran from 1902 until the herd was sold in 1958; and Wern Farms has been in the Williams family since 1848, the bottling business was sold to Bordens in 1956 and the main herd dispersed in 1971.
Barn 1, the original barn at Wern Farms, still exists: Empty except for its 122 stanchions, the falling down bull pens at the south end of the former barnyard, the original silo and over 100 years of memories.
Many dairy folks may remember Chet Williams who managed Wern Farms for many years and was long involved in registered Holstein circles. His children included: Dave, at age 83, who still works some of the 600 acres on the farm, Phil (Steve's dad) who died at an early age, and Barbara, a Broadway musical performer who sang at World Dairy Expo in the 1980s and died in an auto accident in 1989.
AHEAD OF THEIR TIME
None of these three dairy farms are recognized as historical sites, nor will they be remembered for their show ring winnings or great genetics. However, each played a part in Wisconsin's development as a dairy state.
They were big in size and showed that dairy cows could be managed in big numbers and at a profit. They used very modern dairying systems long before the average family dairy farm had advanced beyond milking very small herds, by hand.
Each dairy employed and managed large numbers of employees that were fed all their meals and housed on the farms.
They were market oriented: Keystone Farms sold bottle milk and ice cream; Brook Hill marketed specialty milk for babies, often called "Doctors milk" into Chicago; and Wern Farms was a bottler and delivered it to homes. Each of the three was certified milk producers.
I doubt that many of the thousands of people who now live in fine houses surrounding these still-in-existence dairy farms of the past even know they are there - just old decaying buildings.
The three-story dairy barn is gone and the future of the buildings on all three farms is short term but maybe I'll have reason to revisit them and their ghosts of the past yet again-for whatever the reason.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.