What happens to the empty barns?

John Oncken

In 1990 — just 28 years ago — there were over 33,000 active dairy farms in Wisconsin and needless to say with each dairy farm there was a barn. These were barns holding perhaps a dozen or 20 cows to bigger barns with 100 or more stanchions.  

Today there are less than 8,700 active dairy herds in the state and a goodly number of these are housed in one-story freestall barns. Did you ever wonder what has happened to those 24,000 (or so) dairy barns that have lost their tenants (cows) over the past 28 years? 

The cows have gone for over 50 years and the barn has long been used for storage.

Never noticed

I have and I often think about it. I was reminded again of the subject a week or two ago when I noted an old barn and silo nestled in the trees along a well-traveled road on the east side of Madison. Although I’d passed this old barn many times over the years, I'd never noticed it until a friend asked me about it.  

“What do you mean, old barn,” I asked. “There was a farm atop that hill you are talking about — I wrote about it some years ago, but it’s long gone and now several big buildings reside on the site.”  

“No, this is another barn, it’s hard to see unless you know where to look and drive slow,“ the friend said. 

It’s there

My curiosity got the best of me, so the next day on my way home from my Monona office to Sun Prairie I detoured from the Highway 151 frontage road, (where all the car dealerships reside) up the rather steep hill to Burke Road and there was the barn.

Not seeing a house, I stopped at a house up the street in hopes of getting some information.

“Yes, I know the barn, I was raised there,” 90 year old Jenny explained, “I was raised there. My nephew Don Wood lives there now, I’ll call him.”  And, she did.

Don Wood now owns the small acreage originally owned by his great grandfather.

Nothing special

“There’s nothing special or exciting about the barn or the farm,” Wood began.  “My great grandfather had five kids and planned to buy a farm for each of them. One of the five was my grandfather Horace and this was his farm. The barn was built in 1909 (maybe) along with the machine shed and a few other buildings, but the house dates to 1865. Wood said he believed the last cow milked in the barn was in about 1956 and the barn has been used for storage ever since. 

Wood said his dad, Sheldon moved here in 1956 after retiring from the Air Force and helped his brother Delbert run a restaurant supply business out of the big converted garage and the hay mow of the barn provided extra storage.

“I guess none of  the family ever wanted to tear the barn down or develop the remaining acres into lots,” Don added. “So the barn is still here.”

Home barn still there

The dairy barn on my home farm is also still there, although minus the stanchions and pens used by our cows and heifers that were removed by my niece and her husband (the owners) in a remodeling effort some years ago.

The Oncken barn is largely unused but remains close to the heart of the writer.

I’ll admit I liked the barn the way it was: stanchions for 15 - 18 cows, a bull pen and calf pen and four horse stalls, later used for feed storage. I still half think/half dream about milking those cows with my dad and brother and the conversations we carried on while trying to listen to the radio (I Love a Mystery, Bob Hope, Little Theater off Times Square). I know we did more family talking than my children and I did during their teen years.

Every old vacant barn will have its stories. Maybe about how the stanchions were always too big or too small for the cows thus leading to some standing in the gutter, some laying sort of crossways, all leading to banged up knees and hocks. 

Perhaps throwing down silage by fork — before the unloader days — and sometimes at night,  if we didn’t get the job done in daylight, which meant climbing up the chute and pitching silage in total darkness.  

Climbing up and down the silo chute never seemed a problem but I was scared to death when climbing up the outside of the silo to get the silo filler pipe in place. Dad didn’t want to do it, my brother was younger so I was always nominated to do the climbing. Even today my knees weaken when I think of straddling that last iron step (imbedded in the concrete) and moving the distributor hood into place. 

Big money

Our dairy barn had a very narrow aisle between  the manure gutters — too narrow for a spreader so we used a Jamesway manure carrier  that traveled on an overhead track six feet off the floor — a bad situation because all of us were over six feet tall. That unit could be raised or lowered, was forked full and pushed out the door to the spreader or in the winter, onto the storage pile in the barnyard.

A former dairy and beef barn at Arena has been rebirthed as Sugarland, a popular wedding venue.

Of course, come spring, the pile was loaded by Donald and I, using five tine forks into the spreader and then to the field. Our pay, at ten cents per load, amounted to some $70 each, not much but better than nothing we always agreed. 

Most all the empty dairy barns dotting the rural roads are the traditional two-story type. Cows on the first floor, hay up above. Yes, I well remember making the hay load in front of the hay loader, sticking fork to get the loose hay into the mow and on occasion mowing the hay. (I often wonder if we could do that today, what with the dust and hard work involved and probably a law.)  

Hard to tear down

My guess is that it would be hard for a farm family to demolish the unused dairy barn. After all, that’s where they spent so much of their time and accumulated so many memories — many of them centering on bad things that happened: broken stanchions, overflowing water cups and burned out haymow lights among them.

Most of Wisconsin's dairy barns in use today are stanchion or tie-stall types.

For a couple of decades, few if any, two-story barns have been built and time in the barn involves using end loaders or tractors, the milking in the bigger herds is done by employees and hay is stored in bags or bunkers. There is not the family togetherness my generation knew.  And, the memories will be different, probably not so barn centered.

Even more empty barns

Are the 24,000 dairy barns that went empty since 1990 or the 36,000 since 1980 still standing? Many are, as part of a building expansion or other use on the still operating farm. Many are not, as the farm was sold to a developer and buildings remove or they have fallen down. Others are still there because owners just never took them down — like the one on busy Burke Road in Madison.  

Will the freestall barns of today still be around 75 years from now? Doubtful; they are not built to stand that long. Unlike the old barns, many that are still being used, they were built to last forever. 

Maybe so many of the old barns still remain because they were where we spent our time and made so many of our of the memories, maybe.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.