The best Wisconsin ag history ever written

John Oncken
the round barn in its heyday - built in 1911.

I’d guess that most folks in Wisconsin have an interest in dairying as it was “in the day,” whatever that day was. There are many books on the subject but none I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of them) is as complete and as interesting as the four volumes of “The Round Barn...A Biography of an American Farm.”  

The first book

Friend Bob Walton (of ABS fame) originally lent me a copy of the just recently published book (in 2011) authored by Jacqueline Dougan Jackson, a retired professor from the University of Illinois who was raised on a Beloit dairy farm. I’ve read the book - it’s 539 pages long - and know that Ms. Jackson knows about what she writes.  

Jackie Dougan Jackson

The Round Barn 

Around which the stories revolve was built by Jackson’s grandfather, Wesson Joseph Dougan on Cooley Road in 1911. It is the the central presence throughout the book.  From it come stories of most every thing that happened on the farm from 1906 when Dougan purchased it until it was sold some 65 years later. 

Top dairy farm

That period encompassed the happenings at Dougan Guernsey Farm, an outstanding dairy farm, a longtime milk bottler and a bit about Dougan Seeds, the farm’s hybrid seed corn business.

The books are chock full of stories about employees, neighbors, ag leaders and agriculture. The author was a consummate note taker as apparently were her father and grandfather as the detail about people and farming shows.  

The stalls were wedge shaped with a circular gutter.

Jackie Dougan first presented her plan to write a book about the family farm in a discussion with her grandfather W.J. Dougan in 1943 when she was but 15 years old.  “I’m going to call it ‘The Round Barn,’” she told him. “I can write what the round barn sees...the round barn is in the middle of us all, and it sees everything. It is the center.”

She did write

And so she did write a book. In fact, four of them. All centered on “The Round Barn: A Biography of  an American Farm” published in 2011, 2012, 2014 and and the final volume published in 2017. 

The story begins with W.J. Dougan, a Methodist minister, who became deaf and bought a rundown dairy farm on the outskirts of Beloit.   

The manure carrier track still hang from the rafters.

The barn is built

In 1911, Dougan, with the assistance of UW Wisconsin Professor Franklin King, inventor of the cylindrical silo and proponent of round barns, built a 14 x 56 foot concrete silo and a round barn surrounding it. (Note: King,  professor of Agricultural physics at the U.W. was famous for his work in soil science.) King Hall was named after him and still stands today. 

The barn was still standing (just barely) on Colley Road just off the interstate at Beloit next to a mobile home park when I visited. Some years ago, efforts were made to rebuild it but they failed.

The “Aims” of the Dougan dairy can be seen through a hole in the side of the barn.

Farming Aims

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 a set of “aims” that he carved on the side of the silo inside the barn:

  1. good crops
  2. proper storage
  3. profitable livestock
  4. a stable market
  5. life as well as living.

The Dougan dairy farm was electrified in 1914 via a generator and in 1917, W.J. paid the Beloit power company to run a line to the farm and the family held an open house to show what electricity can do to enhance farming.  

The round barn today, battered, beaten and weathered, but still standing.

Both WJ  Dougan (he died in 1949) and his son Ron were recognized as hosts to farming events including the 1961 Wisconsin Farm Progress Days for which the Beloit Daily News proclaimed a record attendance of 150,000.

Yes, I’m enthusiastic about these books. I’ve never seen such a great history of dairying as carried out on one farm by a family that seemed to be ahead of the times. Besides, they’re so interesting!  

Reach John F Oncken at