95-year-old's farm tool collection, restored cabin are rich in history
STONE BANK – Retired dairy farmer Joe Becker may be 95 years old but he remains active by sorting and refurbishing the hundreds (maybe thousands) of farm tools in his collection.
When the weather is suitable he can be found upstairs in his barn sorting, repairing and painting pieces of history. He gets help from family members who share his enthusiasm for the farm antiques, particularly his son-in-law Mike who lives next door.
Many of the pieces in his collection are even older than he is. They tell a story about how farming once was.
Raise the metal cover of an old grain drill and see the farmer’s hand-written notes with the date each year that he seeded in spring.
An old manual, about 10 inches thick with a hard cover, was a standard shop repair manual.
“It was the farm equipment computer of the past,” Becker said. “It has 3200 pages with pictures and details of parts from many brands of equipment and tools.”
Joe and his wife Dorothy had eight children, five of whom are still living. The Beckers' milked cows on the family farm nearby until Joe was 66.
“My son was farming with me and he wanted to quit milking and I didn’t want to go on milking alone,” he said.
Becker stores his larger pieces of antique farm machinery in the barn on that farm where some of his family still live. He acquired much of his older machinery when a neighbor and friend passed away and his wife called Joe to see if he wanted the equipment.
With the dairy cows gone they cash-cropped but Becker missed the animals.
In 1976 he started raising buffalo on his farm.
“Since I saw my first buffalo, a realistic looking stuffed animal in the display of the Wild West at the Milwaukee Public Museum I knew I wanted to raise buffalo some day,” he said.
Becker gradually began decreasing the size of the herd in the 1990’s and in November 2001 he sold the last bison named Harley.
While raising buffalo, Becker kept his business on a small scale, selling most of the animals as breeding stock. As buffalo meat was touted as a healthy, lower fat meat, the demand began to grown and Becker found himself with several regular buyers for his animals.
With their farm located so close to the metropolitan area, the Becker homestead became a popular stop for passers-by to take pictures of the buffalo wandering around on the snow-covered lot.
“They looked vicious but they never made an attempt to get out. Despite being cantankerous at times, the buffalo were hardy creatures and offered some advantages over cattle.” he said. “They live longer and produce more calves. Bison are rugged animals and are able to withstand the extreme Wisconsin winters.”
Becker admits if they animals had ever escaped, they might have been a challenge to catch.
“They are roamers by nature and it is difficult to herd them like cattle, he pointed out. “They were always quite content and the only thing they were interested in was their feed.”
Becker says he and his wife have always shared a great love for history. With that in mind they began thinking of moving a log cabin onto their property to store their growing antique collection. The cabin on the property is now used as a guest house and a place to go to sit and reflect.
Becker's original idea was to build his own log cabin on the farm.
“They took down all the telephone lines in our area and put the lines underground. I was going to try to get enough of the poles to use to build a log cabin,” he said.
It didn’t work as he had hoped so he started shopping around for a log cabin to move onto the property.
The structure that now sits on the Becker farm dates back to 1856. Joe discovered it in an ad placed in the Milwaukee Journal back in 1975. Becker's interested increased when he learned the cabin was located not too far from where he lived, making the move more feasible.
While the cabin was in a "half broken down" state, with four walls and no ceiling, Becker was able to shore up the structure by using joists he found in another building that he razed. While reassembling the cabin, Becker discovered that he needed to replace a log on one side. Again, he was able to find another elsewhere that fit the bill.
While in the process of reassembling the log cabin, Becker said a group from Old World Wisconsin stopped in to check out his progress.
As they do when restoring buildings at Old World Wisconsin, Becker had numbered each log.
“I knew this cabin had been moved once before because the chalk numbers were faintly visible from the last time,” he said.
Three of the windows of the cabin are still original. While the others are new, they look very much like the original. A tiny door on one side of the cabin is also original
“It’s so short and narrow because it wouldn’t let much cold in,” Becker said.
The cabin is furnished with antique furniture, wood-burning stoves and décor. An old wooden bench that stretches along an entire wall was built by Dorothy’s grandfather.
On the floor is a cotton braided rug similar to one that would have been used in the days when this cabin was called home by some family.