Saving an old barn...hopefully

John Oncken
Even the big barns fall if not maintained and full of cows.

In 1990 — just 30 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 7,000 active dairy herds in the state and a goodly number of these are housed in one-story freestall barns. That leaves over 25,000 (or thereabouts) traditional two-story stanchion-type dairy barns that have gone 'cow-less' in the past three decades. Did you ever wonder what has happened to those dairy barns that have lost their tenants (cows) over the past 30 years? 

Those now empty barns plus the thousands of empty facilities from years prior now pretty much stand empty and are slowly decaying and falling in on themselves. 

Peter Marshall, retired doctor and Wisdom Barn Project leader

A reminder    

I often think about that and was reminded again of the subject a week or two ago when I received an e-mail from Peter Marshall a retired physician and an “old barn lover.”    

“Hi John, you don't know me. My name is Peter Marshall and I'm working to save the old barn currently owned by Holy Wisdom Monastery on Highway M in the Town of Westport near Middleton in Dane County. Your 2018 article in the Wisconsin State Farmer "What happens to empty barns?" has been very helpful in understanding the big picture of the drastic decline of old barns in Wisconsin. That is where I found your email address.

"I'm also wondering if your family barn may be located on Oncken Road just about a mile north of Wisdom Barn? I'm reaching out to you now to find out if you might be interested in talking with some of our group trying to save the barn.

"We would be interested in your thoughts about preserving this barn and also whether you might be able to put us in touch with other people or organizations that might be interested in supporting our effort to save this old barn.   

"Thank you for your article and for inspiring others to save the barns they love. I would appreciate hearing back from you. Sincerely, Peter Marshall."                                          

Thanks Peter, I’m not a barn builder or restorer but would be glad to meet with your group and learn more and yes, the Oncken barn referred to is where I was born and lived until I was eight years old. 

The Wisdion Barn project committee includes, from left,  Sylvia Marek, arboretum naturalist and retired gardener and personal assistant to Pleasant Roland, Larry Kruckman,  retired Anthropology professor, Maia McNamara, retired librarian and Peter Marshall, retired doctor and Bob Dindorff (not pictured) Philanthropy Officer for Holy Wisdom Monastery.

A growing group

Peter Marshall heads a small but growing project committee in efforts to restore the Wisdom Barn that probably dates back to the 1880‘s. The barn was used by several farm families for about 100 years. After farm operations ceased in the 1970s the old barn fell into disrepair.

Wisdom Barn is currently owned by Holy Wisdom Monastery, an ecumenical Christian community in the Benedictine tradition who first came to this site in 1953. The guiding principles and work of the Holy Wisdom communities are an inclusive and welcoming worshiping community; working on issues of social justice and peace; and caring for the earth through ecological restoration of the land, environmental, education and demonstrating practical and spiritual aspects of reverence for all creation. 

Holy Wisdom Monastery dates  back to 2009. Prior to that it served as a Benedictine monastery.

Holy Wisdom acquired this old barn in 2012 as part of a purchase of adjoining agricultural land, which has since been restored to a high quality native prairie. As the last visible reminder of over 100 years of farming and the farm families who lived on and cared for this land, this old barn has continued its decline. It is among the diminishing icons of Wisconsin’s agricultural heritage. 

They are also well aware that  the surrounding area is rapidly being developed as a housing area and remnants of its farming history will soon have disappeared.    

Tall, old but decaying Wisdom Barn.

A valuable asset

There are no immediate plans for substantial use of the barn by the Holy Wisdom communities. However, there are members of the communities who believe that this old barn is a valuable asset and should be preserved as a historical building and as an architecturally beautiful reminder of the agricultural heritage of previous generations of hard working rural families in Wisconsin. 

Wisdom Barn, the roof is about done.

Preserving the barn

Friends of Wisdom Barn have come together to learn about and try to preserve this old barn. They are collaborating with the Holy Wisdom Monastery leadership and have also consulted with the Town of Westport Historic Preservation Committee, a local architect who has previously restored a similar barn, and specialized barn restoration companies to assess the building’s viability. For additional information on how to get involved, please contact: Peter Marshall at 651-328-9895 or

Good Luck and hopefully another bit of farming history will be saved.

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at