While we were driving up to Wisconsin a while ago, it was hard to miss the barns on farmsteads all over northern Illinois and all the way up into the North Woods of Wisconsin gradually fading away. Northern Illinois and Wisconsin were once heavily populated with small dairy farms and each of them had at least one dairy barn. Even farms that did not dairy had a good-sized horse barn.
Back in those days, barns were the center of farming activities, because back then, all farming was diversified. Unlike today’s modern farmers, back in the day farmers grew a variety of crops, rotating which crops were raised in which fields from year to year. Along with crops, diversified farms also produced livestock fed from the grainstock grown on them. Some farmers chose to dairy, but that was an even harder life than just plain farming. Cows have to be milked twice a day, seven days a week, all year. Cows don’t take vacations. Instead, other farmers raised cattle and hogs and chickens which turned some of the grain they raised into beef, pork, eggs, and chickens for frying and roasting.
On diversified farms, the animal waste products–manure–that collected in the barn, in the hog houses, and chicken houses, was spread on fields to return some of the minerals and other nutrients leached out of the soil by the crops. It was a circular system that was relatively efficient.
And it relied on the barn as the center of it all. Hay and straw for animal food and bedding was stored in the barn’s haymow. Horses were stabled in the barn and their tack was stored there. Hogs that were farrowing were confined there. Generally, a lean-to cattle shed housed feeder cattle, who were confined in the cattle yard with convenient access to hay and bedding straw from the haymow. In the very early years, farm equipment was stored in the barn.
But that was then. Nowadays, virtually every large rural barn you see–outside the modern metal pole buildings–are obsolete reminders of a time when diversified farming ruled. Today, livestock are produced on factory farms. Most of the farms we pass as we drive around the countryside are grain farms specializing in corn or soybeans. Granted, small dairy farms still exist in Wisconsin, but their day, too, is fast disappearing.
Since most, if not quite all, barns aren’t making money any more, farmers tend to simply let them deteriorate since it’s expensive to tear them down, and even more expensive to repair them. The few well-tended barns you see are kept that way by farmers who have anough money to spend on the project mostly for old time’s sake. No more working horse teams, no more need to store tack, no more farrowing hogs or feeding cattle for market are to be seen on modern farms. The haymows are empty, as are the cattle yards.
The well-maintained barns you see nowadays are simply nostalgic reminders of times long gone by.
Looking for more Kendall County history? Go to their web site to see my weekly Reflections column in the Ledger-Sentinel.