What happened to the dairies on Highway 106?

John Oncken

About 10 years ago, I wrote about the demise of dairy farms on about seven miles of Highway 138 that runs between Oregon and Stoughton in Dane county. I was raised on that stretch of what was then called Highway 106 on an 80 acre dairy farm.

Ludwig Larson was a longtime milk hauler and dairy farmer. His barn is ready to fall.

The column centered on the fact that the last cow was milked in the last operating dairy farm in that community in 1992. The story seemed to be of interest to many readers and I’ve been asked about it many times since - so, here is more.  

Why so few dairies?

Why are there so few small family farms these days?

For as many reasons as there are people who made the decisions to leave the dairy farm: changing lifestyles, job opportunities, economics and technology are among them, but the one that seems to appeal to many is a perceived, phantom takeover by big farmers who are farming for money rather than lifestyle.

Seven miles of dairies

A seven-mile stretch of former state Highway 106 (renamed Wisconsin 138) running between Oregon and Stoughton in Dane County was once lined with over 20 dairy farms.

Today there are no dairy farms and no dairy cows. It should also be noted that because of strict township zoning laws there are no subdivisions and no mansions owned by Madisonians living in the country while working in town.

In 1980 Dane County was home to 1,205 dairy operations. Today there are 250, a decline of 95 percent. What happened to the dairy farms? And why? A close look at that short stretch of old Wisconsin 106, could give some answers.

The Meyer barn has  been empty since 1991.

++ The Ed Shinnick farm located at the junction of Wisconsin 106 and U.S. 14 was sold to Fenton Abrams, the Oregon High agricultural instructor, in 1949 and the dairy cows went.

++ The Joe Mooney farm just east stayed in dairying until the early 1960s, remembers Rick Mooney, a Spooner, WI, ag writer and photographer.

“None of the family wanted to continue milking,” he says.

++  Next was the Carl Gunnelson farm, a 120-acre operation. The farm was sold in 1963 to the growing Stokstad Brothers operation a mile away. They leveled the barn.  

++ The John Swenson family had an 80-acre farm and milked a small dairy herd. The house burned in the early 1970s with the death of Mrs. Swenson. The farm was sold and has long been a horse farm.

++  George Paar milked a maximum of 20 cows on a 105-acre farm. Barbara Paar Kruchten said her dad quit milking when she got married in 1964.

"I was the only one of three daughters and one son who still lived at home," she says.  When I left, the cows were sold."  

Barbara Paar and her husband Bernard Kruchten went on to farm 1,000 acres and milk 350 cows near Roxbury in Dane County. She still owns the home farm.

++  John H. Oncken (my dad) sold his 18 cows in the mid-1960s - he didn’t want to expand and go into debt - but continued to farm the 80 acres until 1980 when the farm was sold to his niece. The cows never returned.

++ Next was the Gene Garvoille farm that was rented from the Frank Lovejoy family until 1956 when Robert H. Meyer Jr. bought it. He went on to milk 90 cows until 1991 when a family feud ended the dairy.

++ The Alvie Nelson family sold their cows in 1970 as the children left. Son Ronald and his brother Alvie (we knew him as Chuck) still own the Nelson farm where the old barn still stands.  

The barn is a lonely building at the former Alvie Nelson dairy (empty since 1970) but holds an unforgettable memory for the writer.

I’ll never forget this barn. It was there after a big Thanksgiving meal. My brother and I joined a group of neighborhood kids to play basketball in the haymow.  

The next thing I remember was laying on the barn floor wondering what happened. It seems I had passed out (cold as a mackerel, some said). I always wondered, then and now, what happened and how did I get down from the hay loft to the barn floor? 

My mother explained: “I told you to never run after a big meal.” She may have been right as it never happened again. However, during my serious bicycling days I climbed a lot of steep hills and rode many fast miles after a big lunch. Oh well - one of the mysteries of life I never forgot,

++ The set of white buildings now known as the Eugster Farm Market was owned by the Litel family for many years and operated as a rental farm. John and Pat Eugster bought it in 1953 and milked cows until 1965.

"None of the five sons wanted to milk cows," Pat Eugster said. "They were more into crops." 

++ The Donald Manson family was just to the east on 106 and was another rental farm owned by Harry Reindecker. The Mansons milked about 20 cows until 1968, when they moved to Stoughton.

"I sort of wanted to continue farming," son Willard Manson said. "But there was no money."

++ The Kenyons, Dahls, Offerdahls, Veums and Larsons were other dairy farms on the road. Sevie Kenyon, a outreach specialist at the U.W. CALS says the Kenyon cows left in about 1974 and his dad discouraged the kids from going into farming.

The last dairy

++ The last operating dairy farm on old 106 was that of Les and Jennette Mabie who milked until 1992 when they “got old.” 

The Mabie dairy was well known to travelers on Highway 106 high top the hill looking down on the big pond that fronted the farmstead.

The pond is still there but looking like it was on its last legs, the farm buildings are all gone and the farm is now the site of a big shopping center. The hill has been lowered and is topped by a Wal-Mart.  

The cows went in 1965 and the Eugster farm has long been a petting farm and home for many acres of sweet corn.

Why are there no dairy farms on that stretch of the highway?

Some thoughts:

Didn’t want to expand.

The farmers of the 1960s were mostly folks who had farmed during the Great Depression. They knew what having no money was like and farmed with the theory "pay with cash." Thus they didn't encourage sons and daughters to borrow money to farm on their own and they themselves didn’t want to go into debt (again) to expand the farm to continue the next generation. 

The economy was booming, and off-farm jobs were easily found. And, sons and daughters of farmers started going to college, never to return to the farm.

Hard work

Farming from the 1940s to the 1960s was hard work - real hard work - as technology had not yet hit dairy farming full blast. All of the dairies on old Highway 106, except for two, were small (10 to 20 cows) and wouldn't provide for a second family to join the operation.

There are many reasons for the demise of dairying on that highway crossing the town of Rutland, but being taken over by so-called big, expansion farms is not one of them. 

Each farming community has its own story. Obviously there are communities like the northern/western half of Dane county where there are many large family dairies. They are subjects for another time. This is just one - the one where I grew up.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at