Round Barn history revisted

John Oncken
The Round Barn during its "hey day."

I'd guess that most folks in Wisconsin have an interest in dairying as it was "in the day," whatever that day was.  It might be the years when we were growing up or it could be when we helped grand dad 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 included four volumes each of them some 500 pages long.  Since, I've received numerous calls about the books I'll provide a brief on the series.

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

Meeting goers leave the Round Barn.

The barn

The Round Barn that was built by Jackson's grandfather, Wesson J. Dougan on Cooley Road in Beloit in 1911, is the central presence throughout the books.  From it come stories of most every thing 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.

Many stories

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 were her father and grandfather as the detail 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 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 Dougan house and round barn during its prime farming days.

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 day-by-day farming, with horses early on, that tell simple stories that make farming interesting and challenging.  

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 weighted with a 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 #3

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 as examples. 

This book tells in depth about 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.)

The four books in the series. Each is very different and very interesting.

Sought better cattle

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 two young bulls to be tested on the farm with him.

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, had 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

In 2018 Dougan Jackson completed her almost unbelievable effort in creating what I believe is the most complete history of Wisconsin agriculture ever recorded. 

In 1961, the Dougan farm along with the neighboring Don Lang farm hosted the Wisconsin Farm Progress Days on October 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.

The Round Barn after years of abandonment and jusr prior to its demolision by the City of Beloit in 2012.

150,000 at Farm Progress Days

The event was a booming success with record attendance of 150,000 receipts of $19,600 ($5,000 more than was needed) and 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 now 93 year old Jackie Dougan Jackson who promised her family at age 15 that she would do just that - and did it.

There is so much more and I’ll continue with more highlights in coming weeks.  You really should get one, two, three or all of  “The Round Barn, a biography of an American farm”.  

Not all the stories are earth shaking or really newsworthy but were part of Wisconsin agricultural history. If you like Wisconsin dairying and farming, family, good stories and history  you’ll love these books. 

Go to www. or Amazon to order and to read more details about the books and author.

  John F. Oncken can be reached at