A 125-year-old round barn is waking up

John Oncken

The old, octagonal (eight-sided) barn was in simple terms a wreck: no roofing and gaping holes in the roof; boards missing on the side walls; a hayloft floor rotted, unstable and full of old straw; and remains of a cattle feeder and decay everywhere.

The round barn early  this summer after years of deterioration and before reroofing.

Like many empty dairy barns across the land slowly rotting and falling board by board in their final stage of life, the structure would be considered by most folks as beyond hope and without a future — except for Cari Stebbins, a young women with a vision.

Cari Stebbins does a lot of thinking as her vision is being carried out.

Cari Stebbins sees the decaying barn with a new roof, solid walls, framing and two floors filled with people eating, drinking and celebrating — a destination and a home for public events of many kinds.

Included in the kitchen remodeling are black concrete countertops poured by Cari, Owen and friends.

5 years ago

It was December of 2011 when Stebbins and Owen Brush, who were looking to buy a place in the country, bought the  4½-acre former farmstead containing a jumble of empty buildings, house, barn and assorted farm buildings, all falling down and in foreclosure.

“We worked on the house for a year and a half before moving in, Stebbins said .

The house dating to 1891 or 1892 was gutted and is being remodeled, including a new paint job.

“This meant gutting the house and adding a new roof," she added. "My dad, Dave Stebbins, is a mechanical engineer at Cardinal Glass in Spring Green and taught us how to do things. He had done some building and remodeling before.”

Work, work

While working on the house — moving walls, scraping, painting and building a new kitchen — the couple began making plans to clean up the farmstead, which included removing the fallen buildings. It also meant removing two silos: an old  12-by-40 clay tile structure and a 20-by-60 stave unit built in 1985.

Would you believe, they knocked down the two silo by themselves with the help of a few friends. How could you possibly do that, I asked, knowing that farmers wanting to take down old silos have a tough time getting it done. “We did it with a sledge hammer,” Stebbins replied.  “One swing at a time, and eventually they fell down.”  (My thought: they were very lucky or could run fast.)

Knocking down a 60-foot silo with a sledge hammer.

Major repair

The round barn reconstruction so far has included the removal of the old concrete floor and the remains of the wooden mangers; raising the entire barn above the masonry walls that were repaired; ripping out the decayed hayloft floor; reinforcing the roof supports; lowering the barn back onto the walls; installing a new steel roof; and much, much more.

Cari Stebbins nails boards high atop the barn roof. Scary?

Next to the round barn, the former Double 6 milking parlor sits roofless and forlorn with a big white board on the wall of the milk room — apparently a breeding chart from decades ago. The freestall barn formerly located behind the parlor is long gone, as are several other outbuildings. All giving a hint that this must have been a thriving dairy farm in its day.

The barn wall was completely renewed.

He knows the history

Doug Feiner, Spring Green, knows the farm history. He lived much of it, and yes, it was a prominent dairy farm for may years.

Doug Feiner, the last of the family to milk cows on the round barn farm.

“My granddad, Joe Feiner, bought this farm in 1933, and my dad, Felix, took it over in 1941,” Feiner said. “Until 1959, we milked 30 cows in stanchions down the middle with a barn cleaner.

"In 1959, we expanded with a 59-cow freestall barn that was round roofed and kind of like a quonset building and a milking center with a Double-6 Herringbone milking parlor designed to milk 60 cows per hour, a bulk tank and feed room. We installed a Barn-O-Matic feeder in the round barn and fed our cows there in three feed alleys.

“In 1959, we also put up the 20-by-60 concrete stave silo. I remember the neighbors all thought we were crazy putting up that big a silo.  And I know our milking parlor was the first one in Sauk County and one of the first in the state. Actually, our 60-cow herd was big for the times."

Hay was stored in the round barn, first as loose hay and then as bales. Feiner vaguely remembered hoisting the loose hay with an overhead fork from the wagon in alleyway.

“There was another system, some sort of swinging conveyor, way at the top in the rafters that we didn’t use or understand,” he said. “It’s still up there.”

Mostly Feiner remembers unloading baled hay and moving it upward with two elevators.

“We stored 25,000 small hay bales each year and piled them right up to the roof and cupola,” he said. “Us kids would climb to the top and look out at the countryside from that high perch.”

Cows were fed in the old round barn.

Leaving the farm

In the mid 1980s, Feiner's dad made the decision to retire from dairying and sell the farm. “But, he wouldn’t sell it to me,” Feiner said. “I wanted to continue milking, but it was also the time when farm lenders were recommending 200 cows or more for dairy success, and I was cautious.

“The cows were sold at auction in June 1988. I stayed on and cash cropped for two more years, '89 and '90,' before taking a job in Spring Green with a beer distributor. Dad rented the farm out for a year or so and then sold it. From then on, things just deteriorated.”


I asked Feiner some questions about  the round barn and farmstead.

Q: When was the round barn built?

A: The eight-sided (often called a round barn) was built in 1891 or 1892. The barn never had an inside silo as so many round barns did. Feiner knows that it also had a door at each end of the hay mow, allowing a hay wagon to drive through after unloading. “I think dad removed the inclined drive up at the far side of the barn in order to build a silo."

Q: The milking center is roofless, and the parlor steel is gone?

A: The parlor had a flat, wooden roof that always leaked. I guess it just rotted away in the last 28 years, and the freestall barn needed a lot of repairs and was taken down. I didn’t know the parlor steel, bulk tank and piping was gone. I guess the later owners sold it, Feiner said.

Q: The round barn was also badly deteriorated, but there are other barns as old still being used?

A: Some of the flooring and framing was soft wood and was giving away when we drove a hay wagon into the mow — we were always repairing, Feiner remembered. The years of neglect and no repair or maintenance took their toll.

Q: What do you think of Cari Stebbins' efforts to rebuild the round barn?

A: ‘It’s great, and I hope she is successful,” he said. “I’ve never met her but want to. I’ll help her all I can.”

Feiner has lots of memories and is still with the dairy business. He works for auctioneer Bill Stade at the Richland Cattle Center near Ithaca.

It’s a long way up to the cupola. The light-colored boards are new.

As for visionary Cari Stebbins, she is the operations manager at the renowned American Players Theater at Spring Green, making her a very busy young woman. Will she complete her vision of restoring the old round barn? I’d bet on it! There is much more to the story. Stay tuned.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications.  He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.