Barn styles define ethnic heritage, history

If you consider the farm barn to be an ordinary and ho-hum part of Wisconsin’s landscape, Ruth Olson has this to say: It is a significant symbol of your historical, economic, ethnic and occupational identity.

Building techniques may showcase precision, as in the tightly constructed log barns that were a mark of their Finnish creators. Or they may be purely practical – bigger hay mows to acknowledge a growth in dairy production.

We have gabled, gambrel and hip roofs, barns made from logs, boards, field stone, wood block masonry,

There are barns with square stone silos, house barns for both people and animals, barns with porches, barns built into the side of hills. A tobacco barn looks a lot different than one to shelter cows – or a sty for pigs.

“Each is a marker of our cultural identity,” says Ruth. She is associate director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It is a place that emphasizes languages and everyday culture; barns are a pet project.

“Barns really matter to me,” the Burnett County native says. “A part of it is growing up on a family farm. I have seen how important the barn is in this state.”

Her own family’s farm is gone. “My brother wrote an obituary for the barn, about how it served three generations,” she says. More than 1,000 barns come down each year in Wisconsin, which Ruth considers a big dismantling of ethnic heritage.

“If we could find the money, we’d like to develop a series of driving tour maps, so people can better understand how different Wisconsin barns can be,” she says.

One such effort is the Cheyenne Valley Heritage Road Tour, which emphasizes Wisconsin’s largest rural African-American settlement in the 19th century. The 40-mile tour loop is a project of the Cheyenne Valley Heritage Committee, Hillsboro (Vernon County). For more details, call (608) 489-2350 or go to

This is the Year of the Barn in Wisconsin, an official state proclamation that acknowledges the economic and historical significance of the structure and the industry that it represents. The tribute coincides with an art exhibit that is making its way through the state, “Barn Again! Celebrating an American Icon,” which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution.

The national exhibit has photos, architectural models and historical ads that feature barns. It is a part of “Barnstorm Wisconsin,” a Wisconsin Humanities Council effort.

“Barn Again!” will be at the St. Croix ArtBarn, Osceola (Polk County) from Aug. 15 to Sept. 21, then go to the Washburn Historical Museum and Cultural Arts Center (Bayfield County) from Sept. 26 to Nov. 1.

Wherever it has gone in Wisconsin this year, “Barn Again!” is accompanied by other events that celebrate the state’s rich agricultural history. In Osceola, there will be barn tours, a barn dance, theater, local farm exhibits and performances of specially commissioned music. In Washburn, there will be a “Regarding Farms” art show, a dance performance called “Field Work” and a “Future of the Farm Symposium.”

For more about “Barnstorm Wisconsin,” “Barn Again!” and the Wisconsin Humanities Council, go to or call (608) 262-0706.

Ruth occasionally travels around the state, as part of the Wisconsin Humanities Council Speakers Bureau, to talk about the significance of the state’s barns. “What Barns Tell Us” will be her topic at the Washburn Public Library (715-373-6172) on Sept. 18 and the Antigo Public Library (715-623-3724) on Sept. 23.

Here are examples of the Wisconsin barn trivia that she shares:

* Vernon County has the most standing round barns in the United States (but the total number is unclear; there are eight in the Hillsboro area). Many were built by Algie Shivers, and the design seemed to work well until the late 1920s, when hay was baled into squares instead of being stored loose.

* Volunteers in Rusk County are the first to do a comprehensive survey of barns. Documentation includes barn style, location, ownership and whether the building still is standing.

A goal is to duplicate this documentation statewide.

“Wisconsin is full of really decent people, and a lot of it stems from the intimacy of the family farm,” Ruth says. “The barns are full of stories and details that I think are worth keeping.

“It is about decency, honesty, developing a strong work ethic and perseverance. Where do you learn to live with animals, where do you learn to feed animals before yourselves?” Ruth asks. “You take care of those who can’t take care of themselves … this is all is about more than decorating a house in a ‘country’ theme.”

For more about the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, go to or call (608) 262-8180. Barn histories can be submitted online.

For more about the Wisconsin Barn Preservation program that is a part of the UW-Extension, go to