Shell Lake farmer's painting project shows her pride in America

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
A large hand-painted American flag graces the roof of the Spaulding family farm near Shell Lake, Wis.

Susan Spaulding needed something to do to keep her mind off the low milk prices. With the social distancing limitations placed on the public due to the coronavirus, the Washburn County dairy farmer decided to put her artistic talents – and physical stamina – to the test.

Her project? Paint a giant American flag on the roof of the tie-stall barn on their Shell Lake farm. The building was already graced with images of large dairy cows that she painted on the walls back in the 90s. 

"I always wanted to paint a flag on the barn and told my husband and he said 'go for it', so I did," Spaulding said.

Using the website Inch Calculator, Spaulding found directions on how to calculate the exact dimensions she would need in order to layout the flag on the wide metal roof. The flag measures 17' 8" by 33' 6".

"This site provided every measurement I needed including the size of the stars and how far apart they needed to be," Spaulding said.

Susan Spaulding sprays off the debris and dirt on top of the building, preparing the roof for her artistic creation.

First she needed to prepare the roof by pressure washing away the years of dirt and debris. Then she wiped it down with a vinegar solution.

In order to make sure the image lasted for years, Spaulding purchased quality exterior paint: a half gallon of blue, 2 gallons of white and 2 gallons of red.

"I was just one stripe short of the red and had to buy another gallon," she said with a laugh.

Spaulding says she used a yard stick to layout the pattern, sketching the design onto the metal using a pen, as the hot metal caused markers to dry out quickly. Using a piece of cardboard, she cut out a star template.

Over the course of the project which she estimates took about 2-3 weeks, she began rolling on the white background with a paint roller, then the stripes, field of blue and then the stars. While the painting itself wasn't a challenge, Spaulding says working in the hot sun on a metal roof had its challenges.

"One of our neighbors stopped by and asked if I was worried about getting heatstroke up there," she said. "It was pretty hot some days and I did manage to get sunburned."

She also recommends using plenty of sunscreen and wearing a pair of shoes with good gripping soles.

"I started out wearing sandals and worried about sliding off the roof. I quickly changed to better shoes," she said. 

Spaulding, who created and manages the Facebook group Dairy Farmers Milking Under 250 cows posted photos of her project at different stages, earning over a thousand likes.

"I was really surprised by the reaction and at how many people shared my project," she said. 

Many members of the private group – including members living in Norway and Sweden –praised Spaulding for her creativity and gumption for creating the work of art on the barn. Many teasingly suggested Spaulding paint their barns next.

"You've done an awesome job," posted member Andrea Creg. "That is such an honor to the dairy industry."

Lisa Monson wrote that she had been tracking Spaulding's progress online while homeschooling her children due to the pandemic. 

Susan Spaulding putting down the first coat of white paint using a roller.

"Good job on the flag!" she posted.

Tommy McDonald acknowledged Spaulding's long-held desire to pain the barn.

"Nothing feels better than actually doing something that you've been thinking about for ages," he wrote.

Spaulding even solicited ideas from the group to fill in a blank spot on the barn wall between the painted cows. She received many suggestions from members including the "Got Milk" slogan or a photo of the Read Seal. According to her latest post on Facebook, she is entertaining a mural of a female farmer with a rakish grin on her face next to a bucket of milk being poured into an old fashioned metal milk can.

Spaulding is the first to point out that she didn't paint the barn for accolades or attention.

"There was a lull in the farm work and I had time to do it before I had to get back out in the fields," she said. "But the main reason is that I take pride in being an American farmer. God bless the dairy farmer."