Images from past evoke columnist John Oncken's memories of people and places

John Oncken

The woeful economics besetting most of agriculture—especially dairying—have bred millions of words and photos about the status of farming and farms. And, I’ll admit to having contributed my share of same.

Recently, while searching my computer hard drive for a photo (among over 100,000 such) I viewed one after the other and was especially drawn to some. Not because they were very newsworthy, just different. A bit unique perhaps but to me memorable. Here are a few from 2005 and 2006—14 years ago—but as clear to me as if I’d taken them yesterday.

Eighty-year old Vernon Dunn (left), his son, Donald, both of Oregon, Wis. and his 84 year old brother, Gerald Dunn, Fitchburg, Wis (right), get ready to combine in 95 degree heat in the summer of 2005.

Fun in the Sun: July 2005

When the temperature is in the high 90’s and the sun is beaming down, health authorities recommend that people seek a shady spot or air-conditioned room and drink lots of water. Local radio stations were warning people, especially the elderly to stay out of the heat.

A phone call later that day from Donald Dunn at Oregon, Wis. invited me to come to his farm and watch their old combine roll. I did and found 80 year old Vernon Dunn also of Oregon, taking a different approach to the July heat—getting ready to combine a seven-acre oats field. He was assisted by his 84 year old brother, Gerald Dunn of Fitchburg, Wis.

The three-man crew was readying a 1965, Model 30 John Deere combine with a seven-foot head that was pulled by a 1969 John Deere 4020 tractor. The early 50’s grain wagon was pulled by a 1955 Allis Chalmers WD 45 tractor.

The Dunns could have hired a custom operator who could have finished the small oats field in less than an hour. It will take the Dunns two days to do the job. Why work so hard in the heat and with such old equipment?

“This is our fun,” Vernon said, and the others agreed. “This is perfect combining weather just like we grew up in.”

Bonnie Remsberg, Middletown, Maryland while at World Dairy Expo, says. “I want to present a confident and professional appearance because we (farmers) are professionals.”

Dairy Expo in style

It was at the 2005 World Dairy Expo that I first noticed her leading a Brown Swiss calf between barns and was awed by her fashion boots, nylons, skirt and yellow blouse. I had to find out what this was about, so I followed her to her exhibit.

Bonnie Remsberg, Middletown, Maryland, has her own high-fashion clothing style.

“I always dress like this for the show,” Bonnie says. “I want to present a confident and professional appearance because we (farmers) are professionals.

“Many visitors have never met a farmer,” she continued. “I tell them that we are nutritionists, reproduction experts, animal health specialists and scientists.” 

Ms. Remsberg, has a couple of college degrees and has taught at colleges, judged cattle, raised two children and with her husband, Tom, milk Holsteins and Brown Swiss at their Brook-Lodge Farm in Maryland.

Note: Bonnie also isn’t afraid of work because fashion boots and all, she moved back and forth between our conversation and a manure fork and wheelbarrow.

Barney Lambert and Jackie Sperle ran the Utica Store for decades providing food, tobacco seed and many community needs. When they sold out it shortly closed.

Utica Store: August 2005

After minding the store for 27 years, Richard “Barney” Lambert and Jackie Sperle are ready to sell the Utica Store and move on. The Utica Store has stood at the junction of Highways W and B in the township of Christiana in southern Dane county since 1872.

The store was ultimately sold in the mid-2000’s to two men who were not familiar with the rural scene and did not make it work. The store soon closed and has remained so. It continues to stand alone, forlorn and empty, but so well remembered and missed by the community.

Willard and Brent Schuh, Freedom probably had Wisconsin's first (September 2005) cross ventilation dairy barn.

Cross Ventilation: 2006

In mid-2006, the latest innovation in dairying was cross ventilation and several dairies equipped with the system in South Dakota became the destination for Wisconsin farmers interested in cow comfort.

Meanwhile, I had heard about and visited just such a barn in Wisconsin where Willard Schuh and his son, Brent milk 1200 cows west of Freedom in Outagamie County and had used a cross ventilation barn for some time. As far as I can tell, they are the first to build such a barn in Wisconsin.

Why cross ventilation?  “Why not?” Brent responded “Hog and poultry producers have used it for many years.”

Dennis Welhous has been a sales representative with Schmidt Buildings and Equipment, Kaukauna, Wis. for 28 years and has worked with the Schuhs on other projects.

“Originally (a year ago) we were thinking tunnel ventilation,” he says. “Then we got on the subject of cross ventilation. Why wouldn’t it work, was the question we discussed and we couldn’t find an answer.”

The Schuhs wanted to get away from “dead spots” (where air wouldn’t reach with tunnel ventilation) and side to side was the shortest distance. It includes lots of fans, a flattened roof, more insulation and increased air speed.

 Although the father-son team are modest on the subject of innovativeness, they have put together a dairy barn that will be the subject of much conversation and lots of visitors who will want to see it.

And, of course, cross ventilation has since become a popular and common choice for new and remodeled dairy barns.

Empty corrals became a common sight in the late 2000’s as dairies moved elsewhere and developers moved in.

The cows moved

I first visited the nation’s then biggest concentration of dairy cows anywhere in the Chino Valley east of Los Angeles in the early 1970’s. Some 350 dairies, side by side, in agriculture-zoned land, with cows kept in corrals, a huge dairy plant was built and milk was king.

Then, as had happened before, that former desert welcomed the real estate developers who paid big dollars for farm land and cows began to move out to Texas, New Mexico but mostly north to Bakersfield, Tulare and Fresno.

The last remnant of the former Kasbergen dairy at Mira Loma, California.

It was sad to see the dairies I had visited and the homes where I had talked and drank coffee with the owner being torn down. The saddest sight of all was the toppled brick gatepost  at the former George Kasbergen dairy at Mira Loma. No farm buildings, no ranch house, no big scary dog. Just a fallen memory on that February day in 2006. 

Yes, there are still a few dairies in the Chino Valley, maybe 60 or so. Mostly in a decaying state and are rented to beginning farmers.

Big, big hanger

On one of  my visits to  California’s dairyland I noted what appeared to be two airplane hangers, but much, much bigger. It turns out that they were made during World War II to house dirigibles that were scanning the ocean for Japanese submarines. The hangers later housed helicopters but have been empty for decades except for a few special events or on occasion to house blimps like those that circle football games.

The two hangars, built in 1942 of Oregon Douglas fir, are among the largest freestanding wooden structures in the world. I believe they still remain at the former Tustin Air Base and are a sight to see. 

The huge hanger at the former Tustin Air Base now the Marine Corps Air Base, was built to house “blimps” as they searched for submarines off the coast.

Each of the thousands of photos I have tell a story of things and people, especially the people. Sometimes it’s fun to look back.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at