The old Home Place remains frozen in time in farmer's memory

John Oncken
The Oncken farm in its heyday.  The tobacco shed is the gray building just  left of the barn, the oat house to the left between the trees.

There’s something about the home farm that stays with farmers and former farmers forever. The old saying “once a farmer, always a farmer” may or may not be true in fact, but I’ll bet it’s very true in spirit. 

Just ask

Just ask a former farmer. Maybe one who left the farm when he/she was an all-knowing teenager for the glowing future of college or immediate work, anything to get away from milking those damnable cows, feeding those unruly pigs or making hay. 

Maybe a retired farmer, now in a nursing home or at a condo in Florida or Arizona.

The quarter mile long driveway meant a long trek for the daily mail.

Maybe a still working farmer who has long ago moved away from the piece of land where he/she was born to new opportunity.

Ask them about the “home”.  I’ll bet it was that old “home farm”, one on which they spent their early years. Not the modern city house in which they raised their children or the big farm to which they moved decades ago.

My dad (also named John) spent well over half his 83 years of life on a farm near Stoughton he and mother purchased when both were in their 30’s. But until the day he died, his “home farm” was on Oncken Road near Waunakee where he grew up.

The silo was only about 36 feet tall but we were all afraid to climb it when the filler pipes were put up. As the oldest son I was appointed to climb. My knees still shake when I think about it.

My “home farm“ still remains that 80 acres on Highway 138 near Stoughton, although I only lived there full-time for a dozen years or so.

Who cares?

So who cares about those “home places?”

I think lots of folks. First, we constantly hear of the passing of the small family farms. The farms that are too small and inefficient for even the most ambitious young farm family to make a living on. The small farms that are combined into big operations with new barns and houses. The farms that remain only in memory.

At some point the old farm buildings are maybe sold as a rural estate or a hobby farm, remodeled into something totally different or even burned to the ground. Then there is no “home farm” and an important part of life is forever gone.

My parents added a big garage to the house during my college days.

Why even mention the subject?

Because after waking up one recent morning I realized I had been dreaming about the casual phone call years ago when my brother Don, mentioned that “we’re going to take down the tobacco shed and corn crib on the farm at the end of the week.”

Now this was a logical move considering that my brother’s daughter and son-in-law who have long owned the place don’t use the buildings, and as every farmer knows, unused farm buildings tend to begin falling down.

That simple revelation that these two old buildings were about to go got me to thinking. 

Tobacco sheds were never marvels of exotic construction - -just big poles set on unstable rocks built to be airy (to cure tobacco) and often unpainted (too much surface, too much paint) but seem to stand forever in the face of wind, rain and snow.

In this photo, the old tobacco shed is being dismantled, with a pile of tamarack poles stacked along side for reuse. Standing to the left is the corn crib-granary which we always referred to as the “oathouse.”

This one did have two sliding doors on the front (long gone) which provided the backstop for thousands and thousands of balls (any kind of rubber ball) that Don and I took turns pitching to each other for batting practice. 

It had a dirt floor on which we played marbles and “war” (with our toy soldiers).

Its knotty side boards offered hundreds of holes from which I aimed my Red Ryder BB gun at sparrows perched on the nearby barnyard fence.

Only seven bents (about 15 feet between the foundation uprights) long, the shed seems small now – maybe because with some of the boards now removed and saved and it is now open air or maybe because it looked so big when full of tobacco.

I remember building the milk house -  a great addition.

By weeks end, the shed will be but a pile of old boards and tin and I’ll have only photos and memories of it.

Same thing for the nearby corn crib-granary which we always referred to as the “oathouse.” It too is doomed for oblivion. Corn cribs were built for a time when ear corn was shoveled right or left from the wagon in the drive-through. That was hard work for young boys and their dad – I don’t guess you could hire help at any price to do it today. 

Both buildings are probably close to a century old but have but a few days more to live.

Sister Audrey and I (brother Don passed away several years ago) will remember them as old farmers do. After was the “home place.”

John Oncken can be reached at