Another look at Wisconsin's original 'mega dairies'

John Oncken
The big yellow barn before the fire. Why was the three-story barn built at Wern Farms?  Manager Dave Williams didn't know, but says “It was terrible to work with."

Questions keep coming about three dairy farms that I originally wrote about over 25 years ago and have revisited several times.

These were not the typical small family dairies of their day (1850-1971) milking a few cows and struggling for survival. Rather, they were modern, progressive and big ‒ really big ‒ even for today. These large dairy herds that prospered in the first seven decades of the century were certainly unique and have proved interesting to folks with an interest in Wisconsin dairy history.

The three dairy farms that were located about a mile apart in Genesee township in Waukesha County include: Brook Hill Farm (900 cows); Wern Farms (600 cows) and Keystone Farm (300 cows). Each was family-owned by families who had immigrated from Wales in the mid-1800s and, each had its own niche in the corporate dairy world.

Interestingly, many of the buildings on the three farms are largely intact today (I think) ‒ old, rotting, ready to fall down in some cases, but still standing ‒ enough to give one a true view of three mega dairies of over 70 years ago.

One of the former barns of Brook Hill Dairy now is the home for junk.

The biggest

Brook Hill Farm, owned by the Green family, began in 1902 and in the next few decades expanded to over 900 cows marketing a special dietary type of milk. By the early 1940s, the dairy was using artificial insemination with genetics from a fledgling company that later became American Breeders Service (ABS).

The farm began producing certified milk in 1907, developed a Bangs disease vaccine in the 1920s, converted to milking machines by the late 1920s and remodeled the entire facility to emphasize cow comfort in 1951. The herd was dispersed in 1958.

Brook Hill Farms milk was bottled in this glassware.

300 cows 

Keystone Farms dates back to 1853 when the Rowlands family came to Wisconsin and by 1916 was distributing milk to Milwaukee and Chicago through Milk Specialties Co. owned by the Green family of Brook Hill Farm just up the road.

Keystone also became a major ice cream producer for the Milwaukee area until 1971 when the herd was dispersed. Former owner Bob Rowlands became a real estate executive.

Milwaukee Braves pitcher Warren Spahn, his wife and son watch the milking at Wern Farms in the 50’s.

650 cows

The third mega dairy in the small triangle was Wern Farms that was homesteaded in 1848 by John Williams who later sold the property to David Williams (unrelated). In 1909, Wern Farms began bottling milk and wholesaling it to Chicago and Milwaukee by train, and in 1929 began home delivery.

The farm also began producing certified milk and expanding the farm and cow numbers to a peak of about 650 milking cows housed in a series of barns including the famed three-story barn consisting of two milking levels and a huge hay mow. (It burned down in 2013.)

The remains of the two-story Wern Farm barn after the June 1913 fire.

By 1944, brothers Homer and Chet Williams were operating the farm, with Chet later taking control. The Wern Farms' milk bottling business was sold to Bordens in 1956, but the farm continued milking until the Guernseys were sold in 1971 and the Holsteins in 1977.

Chet Williams remained active in registered Guernsey and Holstein activities including exhibiting cattle at major dairy shows including World Dairy Expo until his death in the late 1980s.

Hard to believe, but it's true

It's hard to believe that there were large dairy herds operating in Wisconsin nearly 100 years ago, but it's true. Not only were they milking big dairy herds, but they were producing and marketing ice cream, specialty milk and bottled milk for door-to-door and wholesale delivery.

Brook Hill and Keystone Farms have long ago passed out of their dairying family ownership, but for some reason, the buildings still stand. Wern Farms is still owned by the Williams family.

Wern Farms owner Chet Williams ran a country store in the former milk bottling plant after the cows were sold.

Sharing memories

On a not so recent trip to Wern Farms, Dave Williams shared some more memories along with a tour of the dairy facilities still reminiscent of the "glory days" of Wern Farms.

"Growing up here was a zoo," Williams says. "We farmed nearly 2,000 acres, milked 600 cows, had about 90 farm employees (and a dozen milkers) that were fed three square meals a day, and had 47 milk trucks making home deliveries. I hated to go to school as a young child...I was afraid something would happen on the farm and I'd miss it."

Williams said most of the family's employees were single men.

"Remember, there was a long Depression and little work in the '30s and the three farms were always looking for employees," he continued. "We had a big bunkhouse for single men. Me and my brother Phil (who died at age 31) were never afraid to be around so many strangers. I remember 'Big Joe' Kalcicky and Herman Depke, who were foremen and longtime employees. They watched out for us."

At the time the dairy had 22 teams of horses and 22 drivers, Williams explained.

"When tractors became readily available after World War II, we became an Allis Chalmers demonstration farm and at one time had over 20 Allis W-D tractors."

Lots of buildings

From the close-by highway, the farmstead with its cream-colored buildings is indeed impressive and the famed three-story dairy barn now gone was a traffic-stopper. The double rows of windows no doubt caused a lot of head scratching. The two milking levels each housing 50 cows each were topped by a big hay mow.

I once walked into the lower level and saw a truck tire standing alone and forlorn in the aisle. The stanchions were gone, as were the barn cleaners, but the two rows of Guernsey and Holstein cows standing and eating hay can be easily imagined.

While walking through the first floor of the big barn I heard a child calling. Manager Dave Williams said there was no child in the barn and hadn’t been for decades. I was still scared!


I heard the wailing of what I thought was a young child and asked Dave (who had stayed behind in his pickup) where that youngster might be.

"There's no one in the barn. You went into the only entrance," he said. "You must be hearing ghosts."

I surely don't know, but someone was crying in that old barn and I don't think it was my imagination. But, what was it? I got out!

Next to the two barns are two former ice houses that held ice harvested from a nearby pond, the bunkhouse, milk processing plant, farm office and the original farm house.

Across the highway, the biggest dairy barn used during the Wern Farms milking heyday still stands, (I think) although deteriorating.

"There were 122 cow stalls in the unit that had three milkers overseeing them," Dave says. "I remember that the three milkers didn't get along at all. I'm not sure how they did it because they took care of the "string" completely from feeding to herd health to milking."

Just outside the long barn and fronting the road was the bull barn holding eight bulls,

The near 2,000 (now 300) acres of hills and valleys that Wern Farms actively farmed is now dotted with housing and part is home to the Wern Valley Sportsmans Club run by Steve Wiliams, Dave's nephew.

Ahead of their time

The nearby former Keystone Dairy remains with two of its three dairy barns standing, dairy processing plant still active for other uses, and the old bunkhouse and various other buildings serving as apartments.

As for Brook Hill, some of the buildings remain: a couple of barns, the bunkhouse, laboratory, milk processing plant and storage buildings. Again, many of the buildings are rented as apartments. When they go, history will be lost and memories will fade as houses are planted where barns once stood.

These three dairies and many like them across Wisconsin were much ahead of their time and were doing things we are now rediscovering. They knew about cow comfort, herd health, dairy nutrition, employee management and dairy marketing.

They each worked directly with UW-Madison and state dairy experts and commercial companies. They were very knowledgeable, smart, modern and progressive, but without computers, cell phones or electronics.

Any more questions?

Reach John Oncken at