At one time, Wisconsin was the home to well over a hundred thousand traditional dairy barns - the typical red, two-story stanchion barn that so many dairy farmers grew up with. As dairy herds consolidated, the barns were converted to other uses, were torn down, simply fell down or in many cases still remain empty with sagging roofs and crumbling foundations.
One barn that still stands, although long empty of milk cows, is the big (126-foot long) for its time, round roof barn on the former Rosevale Farm located between Mazomanie and Arena in Iowa county near the Dane county line. The round roof structure is relatively new as old barns go, dating to 1926 after the original barn burned.
It held dairy cows until 1976 when Sam Sawle and his sister Winnie last milked cows. In that year Steve and Tim Harrington, neighbors about a mile away, began cropping the farm and they put Holstein steers into the barn.
The barn was across the road from the historic Sawle farm houses, which boasted of its big lawn, stately trees and elaborate round fountain. William and Jeannette Sawle, who bought the already historic farm in 1899 and bore nine children, hosted many dignitaries over the years and Rosevale was well known in social circles.
In 2003, Ted Sawle at age 102, and the last of the family, sold the 70-acre farm to Bobby and Joy Hinds, long-time Madison residents.
Bobby Hinds is a legend in him: Former UW-Madison and professional boxer, art teacher, insurance salesman and owner of the nationally renowned Lifeline USA, maker and marketer of Lifeline jump ropes and Lifeline gyms exercise equipment.
Joy Hinds was born and raised on the Harrington farm just up the road and as a farm girl had often visited and played at the farm grist mill (it burned in 1943) on Blue Mounds Creek, which ran through the Sawle farm. She was aware of its long history.
Bobby and Joy Hinds had no definite plans for the farm when they purchased it other than being a nice place in the country that was seriously run down and needed a lot of repair.
Enter Dan and Nancy Viste, who had purchased the old (1857), historic and vacant Mazomanie Feed Mill in 1992. They rebuilt it and reopened the structure in 1995 as the now well-known and famed "The Old Feed Mill" restaurant.
The Vistes were not previously builders or restaurateurs. Dan was a hydrogeologist by training who had worked as an environmental engineer at Waryzn Engineering in Madison and ultimately rose to president of the firm. Nancy was a research chemist at the UW-Madison School of Pharmacology in her prior life.
The first project in need of the Hind's attention was the remodeling of the 1862 farmhouse that had a full-length sleeping porch on the second floor and a similar summer porch on the first floor used for eating and entertaining.
Viste and his Historic Properties Management company worked with the Hinds on the house restoration. It started with stripping the house to its framework. "I helped the Hinds find a direction," Viste says. "We couldn't go back to 1852, but settled on 1916 because an earlier remodeling had taken place then."
By 2008, the house had been completely rebuilt and furnished with collectables and antiques that Bobby and Joy had found that fit the scene.
The long-defunct and decayed fountain was also rebuilt and the historic Sawle - now Hinds - house was complete and their thoughts turned to the now empty, dairy barn.
Meanwhile, word had spread about the old farmhouse, lawn, fountain and ancient oak tree on the farmstead and couples began using it as a wedding site, renting the house and having their receptions and meals at The Old Feed Mill several miles away.
"We couldn't handle large crowds at our restaurant," Nancy says. "So our thoughts turned to the barn and its big space."
The next chapter of "Sugarland" (Bobby's nickname was "Sugar" during his boxing days) began as the former dairy barn embarked on its transformation to a wedding complex.
First the manure that had accumulated over the years had to be removed: "This took us forever," Nancy says.
The Vistes did not want to deal with a two-story building so the hay mow floor was removed, the siding between the foundation and hay mow floor cut out and the entire barn lowered by one floor.
"That looked like a big job," Dan Viste says. "However, Bob Childs and his House and Building Movers company at Boscobel made it easy. "
New windows and doors went in as did a new floor (over the original concrete floor). A kitchen and restrooms were added as was a patio area for outdoor events. Then there are the four huge chandeliers hanging from and 18 feet below the still-in-place hay fork track in the barn peak.
By June 1 all the work had to be completed as the first wedding using the barn as a reception and meal area was scheduled for that day.
"All went well," Nancy Viste says. "It was a great start."
"Many of the couples want to have the wedding ceremony under the big oak tree on the lawn," Dan Viste says. "They have the reception in the barn or at the Old Field Mill and spend the night in the house."
It was the big oak tree with the wide spreading branches that attracted Jamie Fallon of Chicago to pick Sugarland as the site for her marriage to Mike Sparger. She even incorporated one of the branches in the wedding invitation design.
Although Jamie and Mike both live in Chicago, they have connections to the area: Jamie's parents have a cottage on Lake Wisconsin and Mike's father and grandfather were raised in Sun Prairie.
The wedding was held on June 8 under sunny skies and under the oak tree at Sugarland in rural Iowa County. All expectations were met.
If all goes well, there will be a wedding every weekend until mid-October. "We're booked pretty much full for this year and for most of the June 1 through mid-October 2014 season," Nancy says. "We've hosted weddings for many years at The Old Feed Mill (the old feedmill.com or 888-345-4909), this gives another option."
When I look at the soft light from the chandeliers, see the shiny floor and high peaked round roof above, I can't help thinking of the many thousands of cows that were milked in this barn over 50 years.
What would they think? What would the generations of the Sawle family who milked cows here think?
In any case, unlike so many old dairy barns, this one still stands strong and tall and is certainly good for another 77 years.
Thanks to Bobby Hinds (the boxer), Joy Hinds (the former farm girl), Dan Viste (the hydrogeologist) and Nancy Viste (the research chemist) it all came together, slowly but but surely and most important, successfully.
The result is a new couples "destination" located in the historic Blue Mounds Creek area of Wisconsin.
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.