Like most Wisconsin townships Fitchburg was a farming community from the beginning and in the face of suburban sprawl has largely been able to retain this rural heritage, at least in the southern 2/3 of what is now the City of Fitchburg. Besides the cultivated fields, the most iconic feature of rural America is its barns, designed to shelter equipment, livestock and harvested agricultural products. During the last 175 years this iconic image has seen changes due to improved building materials and concepts, but in Fitchburg the rural life has also had to deal with the encroachment of suburban sprawl. The following is a pictorial review of barns in Fitchburg, and how they have evolved in changing times.
The early Fitchburg farmers built barns out of logs. The building material was plentiful and frequently on the farm property. However, this material was heavy, limiting the height of the structure and required considerable shaping of each log. The above log barn, built in the 1840s, was owned by the Fox family who had purchased it from the Pierce family.
With the advent of the sawmill, lumber became available to build bigger and taller barns providing more space to shelter animals and hay in the harsh Wisconsin winters. However, this more pliable material did raise the cost of building a barn. The cost of building a good-size barn was $1,200 in 1895 with lumber accounting for over 60% of the cost. At this time workers were paid $2.50 a day. Vroman’s barn, shown above, was the first timber frame barn in Fitchburg.
Stone was another material used to build barns. This material, obtained from local quarries and held in place with cement, lasted longer than wood but was more expensive to build. The McKenna stone barn at 2800 S. Seminole Highway is 150 years old (above left). As a compromise many barns had a stone base upon which a timber barn was built. This reduced the rotting where snow set against the barn’s base for several months. The Whalen barn at 5823 Whalen Road (above right) is an example of a stone base timber barn.
Until the late 1800s Wisconsin was a wheat producing state, fueled partly in the 1860s by the need to feed the Union army during the Civil War. A loss of essential nutrients in the soil caused by wheat growing and a devastating wheat disease changed the direction of farming in Wisconsin forever. Wisconsin became a major dairy producing state helped along by the addition of railroad lines that delivered the milk daily. The evolution of this change in the late 1800s is described in the video How Cows Created Wisconsin beginning about minute 35 (click on title to see video).
Before this revolution, farmers had a few cows to fulfill their personal needs, but the long cold winters made it difficult to store enough food for a herd of cattle. The introduction of storage pits that were being used in Europe provided the means to store silage during the long Wisconsin winters. These pits, developed thousands of years ago, allowed easy access to the silage, but required considerable weight to squeeze out the air to prevent spoilage. To get around this, tall silos allowing the weight of the silage to squeeze out the air were developed that were first made of wood and then stone or cement. These silos became a mainstay of farms, as seen in photographs for over a hundred years. However, the high maintenance cost of machinery used to load and unload the silage has recently resulted in farms returning to storage pits that use plastic covers and large tires to provide the weight to squeeze out the air. The top two photographs above show Fox barns with prominent silos in the early 1900s. The bottom two photographs above show the Gillette dairy farm (left) and the Purcell farm (right) with their prominent silos.
Like any building, barns age with the passing of years. To extend their lifespan, barns are periodically rejuvenated with new wood and especially new roofs. The Haight barn near the northeast corner of Haight Farm Road and County Highway MM is shown here with a new roof.
Some barns slowly succumb to the elements and are replaced by newer structures. The ravages of nature work on wood as well as stone. The O’Brien barn (above left) still stands today at 2747 S. Seminole Highway but is slowly returning to the Earth. The McKenna barn (above right) at 2800 S. Seminole Highway is celebrating its 150th year but due to extensive structural damage will be demolished soon.
Some barns are torn down and reconstructed at a new location. The Kinney barn, built in 1901 at 5325 Irish Lane, was dismantled and the materials used to build a barn at 2268 Caine Road.
Some barns are moved to a new location. The Sykes barn is shown on a trailer as it is being taken to its new home.
Some barns beyond repair are reduced to ashes by controlled burns such as this one at 6065 Whalen Road (above left). However, even newer barns sometimes are lost to fires as this dairy barn at 6158 County Highway M in 2008 (above right).
And finally, some barns are altered to serve another purpose. The John Mann horse barn (above left) was remodeled into a quaint casual restaurant (above right). This restaurant complemented the historic John Mann house that was turned into a more formal dinner restaurant. Together, they are named Quivey’s Grove. For a short history and description of the John Mann House which is on the National Register of Historic Places click here.