"Do people still remember Pabst Farms?" he asked. "It was a long time ago when the dairy herd was sold."
Augie Pabst seemed genuinely surprised when I walked into his office located in the heart of what was known as Pabst Farm No. 1, just east of Oconomowoc, to reminisce a bit with him about the glory days of Pabst Farms Holsteins.
I assured him that indeed the Pabst Farms name is far from forgotten in Holstein cattle circles and that even though the famed herd was dispersed in the summer of 1964, dairy folks - the actual and want to be's - remember the cows and bulls that made their home just a couple hundred feet away from where we sat.
In fact, even though it was never a traditional family farm, rather it was owned by a corporation (Pabst Brewing), it was a mega farm for its day (200 milk cows), and had hundreds of employees. It remains an iconic symbol to so many in the dairy world.
It seemed time for an update, thus my phone call and get together with Augie Pabst, the longtime leader of what remains of the Pabst Farms family still connected to the farm in some way.
The story began with "The Captain," as he is often referred to, Frederick Pabst who sailed the Great Lakes on a side-wheeler. In 1860 he acquired half interest in a Milwaukee brewery, which ultimately became Pabst Brewery,
In addition, The Captain owned a farm called The Highland, in Wauwatosa, where he raised Percherons and Hackney ponies.
His son Frederick Jr. also carried a love for horses and bought land in the township of Summit near Oconomowoc on which to raise them.
In 1907, after seeing that dairying was an expanding industry in Wisconsin, Fred Pabst began raising Holstein cattle. Inline with his reputation as a perfectionist, he developed the farm (1500 acres) and the dairy with the plan to make it "the best."
Fred Pabst initiated detailed record keeping programs for the farm's cropping and dairy programs, used the latest research methods and hired top managers (among them the famed Howard Clapp and Sylvester Weiler) and the dairy grew in fame.
A dairy plant was built on the farm in 1918 that processed the Pabst Farms milk and the milk from over 300 other dairy farms. A second plant was purchased at Paoli in Dane County in 1956.
Pabst was also a long-time member of the National Holstein Association and in 1921 was appointed to head a committee to develop a standard Holstein cow and bull to which all animals could be compared.
After much opinion gathering and heated discussion, the true-type models were developed and made public in 1922. The true-type models have undergone changes over the years as the breed changed, but remain.
Over the years Pabst Farms animals won in the show ring, topped sales and were in much demand worldwide. Some 500 animals were exported to 21 countries and Pabst breeding was at the top of the list among Holstein breeders everywhere.
Like most everything in life, times change and in 1964 the Pabst Farms dairy herd, then managed by Fred's son David, was dispersed - the result of the changing dairy business (the expansion of artificial insemination was a factor) and the plans to build Interstate 94 through the farm.
In the nearly 49 years since Pabst Farms dairy herd has been gone, the memories seem not to have faded. Augie Pabst, although never closely involved in managing the farm, spent much time there and for many years has lived on the property.
"My Uncle David managed the farm after his dad, Fred stepped down," Augie says. "My father August, (David's brother) was in the Naval air force and was killed in a crash at Great Lake Naval Air Station when I was just 10 months old."
Augie's office has a number of photos and newspaper clippings adorning the walls: One shows the two 95-foot silos that stood at Pabst Farm No. 5. "They were said to be the tallest silos in the country," Pabst says. "I can't believe that as a youngster, I strapped my shotgun to my back, climbed one of the silos and shot pigeons - I'd never do that today."
Note - That admission of fear comes from a man who went on to become a world-famed sports car road racer, including three time winner of the Road America 500 at Elkhart Lake, who came close to meeting his demise in a crash at Daytona and is a member of the Motor Sports of America Hall of Fame.
Little remains of the onetime huge Pabst Farms complex: The huge horse arena, maybe the first building built on the property because of Fred Pabst's love of horses stands solid and is now devoted to storage; The three-story dormitory in which Augie's office is located remains as does the dairy plant.
Pabst says that the buildings are probably not long for this world. The dormitory/office structure is over 100 years old as are its plumbing, heating and insulation. "It was built to house farm employees and hold the farm office, " he says.
Today the first floor of the three-story dormitory building holds a few offices and some dairy memorabilia, the second floor has a rental apartment, several storage rooms and a host of empty rooms that were at one time occupied by employees and the third floor, also a former dormitory, is empty.
The horse arena is located just a few feet from the dormitory building and could stand for another hundred years.
Just across the driveway from the office and a bit north of where the several dairy barns once stood is the now empty dairy plant. The facility was converted to a dryer facility years ago and last processed soy sauce.
Only a hundred acres of the original 1500 acres of the Pabst Farms remains with the family, the rest has become a high class housing area with business buildings and empty former farm land.
Many thousands of cars whiz through the former Pabst Farms land each day and only older dairy farmers, some former employees and amateur historians like me know the history and fame of this land.
To my knowledge, no books relating the history of this famed dairy farm have yet been written, my several columns and many photos will be lost and forgotten. There may be a treasure trove of photos somewhere, but where?
It's time that Wisconsin considers the need for a true state dairy museum - a place to hold the memories of hand milking and the one-legged milk stool, state-of-the-art milking machines of 50 years ago, photos of famed dairy farms and cheese factories, long-necked milk test bottles and maybe even the Lely I robot milker.
Then there are the 13 boxes of the dairy records of every cow at Pabst Farms which Dr, Dave Wieckert, UW emeritus dairy professor still retains and would like to find a home for. ("They'd make a big bonfire," Augie Pabst laughingly suggests.)
Memories are long but eventually die like the brief 60 years of Pabst Farms will. Dairying is only about 100 years old in Wisconsin, and it thrived long before the computer, cell phone or TV were invented.
A dairy museum would preserve the history of dairy, the enterprise that made Wisconsin, "the dairy state."
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 email@example.com.