This old barn could tell many stories

John Oncken
The Oncken farm when it was an active farm. On the left is an animal research building operated by a Madison research laboratory.

The white dairy barn on the south side of Oncken Road just west of Governor Nelson Park in the town of Westport between Madison and Waunakee serves an important niche in my family history. It is on the land on which my forebears settled on in 1860 after traveling from Germany seeking a new start in America. 

Seeking adventure

Hajo Harms Oncken was born in 1824 in northern Germany, just a few miles from the North Sea. His family had rented a farm in 1786 and bought it 12 years later. The family farm called “The Klinge,” had a dairy barn that had been remodeled in 1724 and still stands today.  

Coming to Wisconsin

According to an oral family history recorded by his granddaughter years later: In 1859 the 36-year-old bachelor got the urge to travel and decided to seek his fortune in America. The voyage across the ocean was long, rough and stormy but Hajo successfully made the long trip from East Friesland, Germany in 1860. It’s unclear what prompted him to settle in Wisconsin but he did. 

It didn’t take Hajo Oncken long to get a job; as a stable hand at the Veerhusen Farm and Inn, a stagecoach stop outside Madison on the road from Milwaukee to Portage. The inn was located in the little (and long-gone) settlement of Mendota, across the road from what is now the Dane County Human Services Department on Madison’s north side. (The big building was once Lakeview Sanitarium, a refuge for TB patients for many years.)

The house my dad built before he got married. I lived there 7 years before we moved.  My uncle and family, then his son and family lived there until about ten years ago when it was sold and later demolished. The land is now part of the 40 acres that has reverted to a wild life area.

Oncken soon got work on a nearby farm. He met Wilhelmina Junge, a young lady (and his future wife) who had also come from Germany with her family and settled in Morrisonville near DeForest. 

In short order, the ambitious Oncken bought some land in the township of Westport, married Wilhelmina who was 17 years younger, built a log cabin, cleared land and built a new house. The house was considered the most beautiful house in Westport--most settlers lived in log cabins. (It was destroyed by arson some years ago and only the chimney stands.)

Only the chimney remains (lower center) after arsonists burned what was once called the "finest house in the township."

1862: Where it began

The purchase of that farm in 1862 by Hajo Oncken from John and Mary Ann Nichols of Baltimore, is where this story really begins. Part of that farm stayed in the Oncken family for over 150 years. The original Oncken family raised six children including my grandfather (John) on the 200-acre farm. That’s also where the big white barn was built along with several silos, an outdoor feeding system and other buildings.

In 1916, the death of their father meant that my dad John and his brother George had to take over the 200 acre farm. The farm was actually two parcels; the buildings and 160 acres on the south side of Oncken Road and 40 acres on the north side. My dad built the house that stood on that 40 acres in preparation for his marriage to Melva Levenick (my mother), a city girl from Madison’s east side. The lumber came from the farm wood lot and was dried on site.

This was a big barn for its day.

Brothers split

As sometimes happens on family farms, the brothers George and John eventually decided to go their own ways. In 1939 an auction was held. The major portion of the land and the farm buildings were sold to the Kennedy family who ran a large farm down the road. 

My uncle George and his wife Beatrice retained the 40 acres, built a barn, raised crops and raised sons George and Robert. My parents bought a farm between Oregon and Stoughton where I and brother Don and sister Audrey were raised.  

The long unused  milk house today.

Sold again and again

In 1951, the original Oncken farmstead and land was purchased from the Kennedys by Adolph Bolz (president of Oscar Mayer) and his wife Eugenie Mayer Bolz of Madison.  After Adolph’s death in the late 1960’s, the family gave the farm to the U.W. Foundation which held it until the mid-1980’s when Sam Jacobsen (of PDQ store fame) purchased the “Oncken farm.” All those years it remained a rental farm.

The outdoor automated cattle feeding system now overgrown with weeds and trees.

Questions remain

There are some unanswered questions. How was this German farmer able to arrive in the U.S. in 1860 and two years later own a farm? (It is listed in the 1862 Dane county plat book.) Did he bring some money from Germany? Perhaps his new wife had a few dollars? Who knows?

How did my dad and uncle hang on to the farm? Their father died when my dad was 15 and his brother George, 21, and there was a big debt on the farm? My dad talked of going through several farm depressions including the “Great Depression” of the 1930’s.”  

I'd like to know how many beginning farmers got their start as renters on that farm.

The last piece of the original Oncken farm was sold by my cousin some years ago marking the end of the Oncken era. The empty barn that still stands is the last remnant of farming on Oncken Road. The life of those vacant buildings is probably rather short as it is in the midst of a burgeoning development. They served well for many years.

In spite of the raging ocean waves and slow voyage in 1860, Hajo Oncken did find a new life in America. I’m sure glad he made it. 

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406 or