Long, gone Round Barn left lasting ag legacy

John Oncken

I'd guess that most folks in Wisconsin have an interest in dairying as it was done "back in the day" — whatever that day was. It might be the years when we were growing up or it could be have been when we helped granddad or dad milk cows on the family dairy farm years ago...or today.

Many books have been written on the subject but none I've ever read (and I've read a lot of them) are as complete and as interesting as "The Round Barn:A biography of an American Farm" series that began in 2012 and now includes four volumes, each of them some 500 pages long.

The author of this huge and accurate history of farming in Wisconsin (1906 - 1972) is Jacqueline Dougan Jackson, a retired professor from the University of Illinois at Springfield who was raised on that Beloit dairy farm.

The Round Barn before it was demolished in 2012.

The barn

The Round Barn built by Jackson's grandfather, Wesson J. Dougan, on Cooley Road in Beloit in 1911, is the central presence throughout the books. From (the barn) comes stories of most everything that happened on the farm and in dairy agriculture from 1906 when Dougan purchased it until it was sold in 1972 by his son, Ron.

The books are full of stories about employees, neighbors, ag leaders and agriculture. The author (Ron’s daughter, Jackie) was a consummate note-taker as apparently was her father and grandfather, observed by the detail in the book about people and farming shows.

W.J. Dougan was a dairyman who gained fame over the years for his early raising of alfalfa, outstanding dairy herd, recognition of bovine tuberculosis as a threat to humans, quality milk and dairy genetics. He followed the “Five Aims of the Farm" that were engraved on the concrete silo inside the round barn: 1) Good Crops; 2) Proper Storage; 3) Profitable Livestock; 4) A Stable Market” and  5) Life as well as a Living.

The silo bears the “Five aims of the farm.”

The first book

The Round Barn Volume I centers on the barn, the silo and the dairy business and tells of Dougan’s experiments in breeding cattle that showed hereditary characteristics are transmitted without regard to so-called purebred lines and the transmitting ability of a bull is determined by comparing production records of daughters and dams as espoused by Parmalee Prentice (father of Rockefeller Prentice founder of ABS).

The second book

About a year later, the Round Barn Volume II came into being. It centered on life on the farm in the Big House (where employees lived), the Little House (the family home) and farming operations including the advent of hybrid seed corn and artificial insemination.  The book relates teh rhythm of day by day farming, with horses early on, that tell simple stories that make farming interesting and challenging.

The seed house used to process Dougan Hybrids was moved to northern Illinois but was never used.

Jackie’s father, Ron Dougan, got the idea of building a pit silo with concrete sides to hold his wet corn. After a couple of failed efforts they built a trench silo with concrete sides at an angle that worked and was one of the first such in the state.

They used a double rear wheel tractor burdened with concrete blocks to add weight to pack the silage. A black vinyl covering was added along with rubber tires to hold it down. (Note: today they are called bunker storage with upright walls. I did not realize such storage has been around for so long.)

Book three

Early in 2014, The Round Barn Volume 3 was published and continues to show how the Dougan family seemed to always be at the forefront of agricultural development: DHI milk records, alfalfa hay, bunker silos, the search for proven dairy sires, record keeping and public involvement all as examples.

This book tells in depth the growth of artificial insemination (A.I.) of dairy cattle especially by tracing the growth of what became ABS (American Breeders Service).  (Note: I’ll admit to a special interest here as I served as advertising manager for some eight years at this great company in the 1970’s.)

Ron Dougan had a close relationship with breeding better cattle dating to 1928 when he discovered the Mount Hope Index, a statistical method to breed better bulls that was developed by E. Parmalee Prentice. Prentice visited the Beloit farm and actually brought along two young bulls with him to be tested on the farm.

The Rock County Breeders Co-op began operations in 1936 with Ron as secretary  which ultimately triggered a meeting with Rock Prentice (Parmalee's son) who founded ABS some years later.

Rock Prentice, although a graduate of Yale Law School, held dairy cattle improvement as his real love and goal in life. The book traces his involvement through breeding cooperatives, the American Dairy Cattle Club (registered both purebred and grade animals), Wisconsin Scientific Breeding Institute, a series of seven breeding organizations scattered from coast to coast and the formation of ABS with headquarters in Chicago, later in Madison and then DeForest.

The final book

And now, Volume 4 of The Round Barn is available as Jackie Dougan Jackson completes her almost unbelievable effort in creating what I believe is the most complete history of Wisconsin agriculture ever recorded. It tells of the farm’s effect on the state, nation and world.

The 1961 Wisconsin Farm Progress Days were held here on the second farm where Jackie lived, the buildings are long gone.

In 1961, the Dougan farm along with the neighboring Don Lang farm hosted the Wisconsin Farm Progress Days on Oct. 4-6. A total of 260 commercial exhibitors signed up for exhibits on the 160 acres devoted to tent city and parking lots. Soil and water conservation was a major theme of the field demonstrations and Indians from six Wisconsin Dells tribes presented a dance show daily. This was also the first year that dairying and livestock were featured in the then seven year old event.

Booming success

The event was a booming success with record attendance of 150,000 (today 40,000 - 50,000 is good). Receipts of $19,600 ($5,000 more than was needed) were collected resulting in hundreds of happy volunteers and hosts.

Volume 4 continues to tell about the people and events that occurred in the shadow of The Round Barn as told by the 89-year-old Jackie Dougan Jackson who promised her family at age 15 that she would do just that - and did.

Jacqueline (Jackie) Dougan Jackson: writer, historian and Round Barn - just a farm-raised girl.

There is so much more and I’ll continue with more highlights next week. You really should get one, two, three or all of  “The Round Barn" books.” 

Not all of the stories are earth-shaking or especially newsworthy. For instance, the one about her father, Ron, who spent a lengthy period in the hospital but refused to drink the water. "It tastes like seepage from the manure pile,” he was quoted as saying, and he did not drink until his wife brought well water from home.

If you like Wisconsin dairying and farming, family, good stories and history, you’ll love these books. Visit to order and to read more details about the books and author.

Four books make up the “Round Barn, biography of an American family farm”  series.  They are truly a great history of Wisconsin farming.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at