100 year old landmark barn filled with memories and ag innovations

Gloria Hafemeister
The Jones Dairy Barn in Fort Atkinson is 100 years old and features many unique ideas that were innovative for their day.  The barn quilt made by Tawney Hadler was placed on the barn in 2019.

FORT ATKINSON – It's hard to miss as you come around the sweeping curve on Highway 106 a mile southwest of Fort Atkinson. There, across the Rock River still stands the iconic yellow barn that is steeped with history and served as a testing ground for innovative farm equipment.

Local attendees welcomed the opportunity to explore the historic farmstead which until the mid-1980s operated as a dairy farm. Tucked beside a wooded area, the farmstead is not easily seen from Highway 26. The farm boasts of over 1.4 miles of river frontage and 174 acres of tillable land.

Although run separately from its internationally known meat business, Jones Dairy Farm Chairman and CEO Philip Jones says the two-story, gothic roof structure – affectionately known in the community as “the yellow barn”– is one of the reasons why the meat manufacturer retains the term “dairy farm” in its company name.

Original founders

The farm was originally settled by Milo and Sally Jones in the 1830’s and farmed until a portion was sold to the James family in 1922 when the dairy barn was built.

Milo was a government surveyor and began dairying after he received a 331-acre land grant. He believed in diversified farming, relying heavily on animal husbandry and commercial dairying. He built not only barns and chicken coops, but also a brickyard, tannery and an inn.

By the 1850’s he had built up his herd to 25 head and in 1857 the Wisconsin Farmer and North-Western Cultivator published his recipes for butter and cheese. In 1870 he co-founded the Jefferson County Dairyman’s Association.

Jamesway Manufacturing is well known for developing innovative pieces of equipment to make dairy farming more efficient, such as the swiveling stanchion swiveled. When James first installed it neighbors stopped by just to see the cows turn their heads.

Prolific inventor

Born on a farm near Wales, Wisconsin, W.D. James worked on the farm's small blacksmith shop where he honed his craft. He was a prolific inventor and built an adjustable cow stall featuring a rotating stanchion. The stanchion allowed the cow to turn her head and also aligned her with the manure gutter for greater sanitation.

In 1909, he set up a workshop in Fort Atkinson with several local partners and the company continued to grow as James came up with ways to make farming easier or more efficient. In 1912 the company changed its name to the James Manufacturing Company and the “James Way” slogan became synonymous with quality farm equipment.

James, purchased 80 acres of land from the Jones family around 1919 to establish a dairy farm as a way to incorporate his ideas into a real farming situation. The 122- by 36-foot structure was built in 1922 and housed innovative farm equipment and practices. 

The barn was built with two interior silos that would prevent feed from freezing.  The granary features grinding stones and wooden chutes for grain removal.

In a pamphlet describing his products, James stressed that while his own farm was not intended to be a model, it was a place where he “tried to do some things which (he) believed worthwhile.”

According to the publication "The James Way" published in 1918, a barn correctly designed and built right in every little detail— is a constant money maker.

State-of-the-art for its time, the yellow dairy barn was built with two interior silos and a single exterior silo and equipped with the latest James Way ventilation, support columns, stanchions, stall fittings, drinking cups, mangers and manure removal systems.

Four men including his father, worked on the farm and delivered fresh Guernsey milk and eggs to homes in Fort Atkinson. James had developed a system for testing the quality of the milk produced on the farm and he marketed his milk under his own proprietary brand KLEEN MILK.

According to the booklet, the barn was painted yellow in 'deference to the Guernsey cows and the pale yellow color of milk'.

As visitors toured the facilities, Merrilee Lee, director of Hoards Historical Museum, described the unique Jamesway inventions inside the cavernous structure including the barn's unique ventilation system which James' notes keeps the stable comfortable and the air pure and free from odors.

The unique Jamesway ventilation system in the 100 year old Jones Barn is still in place today. The outtake flues would transport stale air from the stable and transport it up through the ventilators in the rooftop, while intake vents would bring in fresh air to the cows.

Other cutting edge features - at the time - included cow comfort innovations such as the Jamesway swivel stall, cow feeding, hay mow feed systems and swine management.

“The James Way” is still synonymous with innovative dairy farm equipment today.

Evolving business model

After W.D. James died in 1948, the farm, including the distinctive barn, was sold back to the Jones family which operated the property as a dairy farm and swine breeding operation until 1985.

After buying the farm back, some of the land was used to expand production space for the Jones family sausage and smoked meats business. The herd of cows was converted from Guernsey to registered Holsteins in 1974 due to market pressure for lower-fat milk. Additions to the 1922 structure were made to accommodate a larger herd which grew to 140 by 1982.

In 1983, the farm managers and 100 volunteers hosted the largest June Dairy breakfast in the state, attracting 3225 people. Two years later, the dairy operation was discontinued in order for the family to concentrate on their growing meat business.

Jones says, “This celebration provides the perfect opportunity to showcase our beloved yellow barn to the local community, commemorate its historical significance to the dairy farming industry, and support the next generation of agriculture leaders in our area.”

Proceeds from the centennial celebration will be used for scholarships to support local agriculture students.

Retired dairy farmer, Bob Zelenski, 93, shows off his collection of antique milking equipment, He says his interest in dairy equipment  dates back to when he took over his in-law’s farm and found an old milker tucked away in the barn that he believes dates back to the early 1920’s.

Local residents and history buffs helped to educate visitors of times past, including Dan Hess of Old World Wisconsin who fired up the forge and demonstrated the skills of a blacksmith. Lydia Fink along with others from the nearby Lundy farm transported a variety of dairy cattle breeds who happily occupied the stalls still standing in the barn. 

Others like Phil Koenin and Bob and Tom Zelenski shared their love of old milking equipment, while John Klettke and Cal Anderson, farm model enthusiasts, exhibited model farms beginning in the early 1900’s through the present time.

On hand at the event was Alice in Dairyland Taylor Schaefer. She said, “Although the Jones Yellow Barn was only a functioning dairy barn until the mid-1980’s, the Jones Dairy Farm company remains focused on making all-natural sausage, dry aged bacon and more while continuing their stewardship of the land," says Alice in Dairyland Taylor Schaefer, who enjoyed chatting with community members, meeting the Jones Family, and learning more about the company’s rich history that began back in 1889.