Look for Vernon County’s rare round barns

Think of threatened or endangered species, and a creature that breathes – the bald eagle, a gray wolf or Karner blue butterfly – likely comes to mind before anything made of wood and shingles.

But that’s not necessarily so in Vernon County, where historians still contend that nobody else in the world has more round barns, although the once-solid lead keeps slipping. A self-tour guidebook plots the barns on a driving loop of around 100 miles, starting and ending in Viroqua; twisting country roads and hilly terrain enhance the rural landscape.

Only one-half of the 20 round barns documented in the 1980s remain in this part of southwest Wisconsin. Two razings happened after the barn guidebook was last updated in 2004.

“The little farmers don’t have the money for the upkeep,” says June Zalewski Pedretti of the Vernon County Historical Society. “The shingles on a round barn are pie-shaped, which means they need to be clipped, and that is expensive – I know of farmers who can’t afford to even patch a roof hole.”

Many of the county’s round barns were constructed during the early 1900s, under the supervision of Algie Shivers, the son of a Tennessee slave who used the Underground Railroad to find his way to Vernon County. The round barn that he built on his own farm was removed in 1980.

The round barn used to be considered novel, practical and progressive: In the middle was a silo or hay chute, which made it easier to feed farm animals in surrounding stanchions or pens. The design turned costly and cumbersome after the invention of electricity and indoor plumbing.

“Some of our (round barn) owners today are Amish and don’t want the publicity” that goes along with owning a round barn, says Judy Mathison, curator at the Vernon County Museum. Another wanted to build a house and announced the round barn was free for the moving – but there were no takers because the estimated cost was $1 million.

“No other country has them,” June says, of the round barns, although the design is found elsewhere in the Midwest. That includes Fulton County, Indiana, which apologetically calls itself the Round Barn Capital of the World. Eight of 17 documented round barns still stand.

Fulton County residents were so confident of their capital status that they began an annual Round Barn Festival in 1971. They didn’t learn of Vernon County’s barn history until 1992, but June, then historical society president, gave the Indiana event her blessing: “It’s on your stationery and it’s your logo – just keep it,” she said.

The 32-page “Round Barns of Vernon County Wisconsin” self-tour booklet costs $12 (plus $3 for delivery) and can be ordered through the Vernon County Historical Society, 410 S. Center St., Viroqua, and www.frontiernet.net (click “Society Store”). Admire the buildings from public roads; none are open for interior touring.

The State Historical Society of Wisconsin estimates the state used to have about 180 round barns. The world’s largest, according to “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” can be found at the Central Wisconsin State Fairgrounds, 513 E. 17th St., Marshfield. Tour this Wood County building during the Sept. 2-6 fair; for more: www.centralwisconsinstatefair.com, 715-387-1261.

The fair’s barn opened in 1916 as a livestock sales space and is 150 feet in diameter, big enough to seat up to 1,000 people. It was built for $5,000 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1997.

The legacy of Jens Rasmussen, who died at age 95 in 2006, includes about 300 landscape paintings. Many contain barns, including his wife’s girlhood home, between Siren and Webster in Burnett County.

The artist’s father, a Danish immigrant and wood carver, designed and built churches, including St. Peter’s Lutheran, north of Luck. He made altars as well as the buildings. The son earned his living as a sign painter but was a self-taught artist with a passion for capturing rural lifestyles, including the results of his father’s work.

About 60 pieces of Jens Rasmussen art are soon featured at a Burnett County event in Siren that coincides with the area’s annual Summer Fest. The area is one of rebirth and resilience; a tornado leveled Siren, population 830, in June 2001.

The artist’s “letters show he recognized the hardships of the past, but he also saw a beauty in those rural landscapes that he hated seeing replaced with buildings slapped-up and over-development on the countryside,” writes the Burnett Area Artists Group, which presents the exhibit.

“His prolific painting and writing gives us a chance to reflect on one humble lifetime resident’s reflections on the changes he has seen over the years.”

The Burnett Arts Festival is 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Aug. 1 at the Lakeview Event Center, 24446 Hwys. 35/70, Siren. For more: www.baagart.org, 715-349-8448. Ruth Olson of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures at UW-Madison will lead discussions about how Jens and his work inspire others to reflect upon their own sense of place.

After the festival, a part of “On Their Way into History: the Landscapes of Jens Rasmussen” moves to Siren’s North Wind Arts, 24467 Hwys. 35/70. For more: www.northwindarts.net, 715-349-8448.

“So many of us have grown to appreciate barns not just simply as beautiful buildings, but as important historical records of rural values,” writes Charles Law, a founder of the Wisconsin Barn Preservation Program, in the foreword to the new “Wisconsin Barns” (Farcountry Press, $15).

The beautiful, 80-page photo book by photographer Ernest Schweit and writer Nancy Schumm-Burgess of Illinois captures the architectural diversity, many moods and lovely settings that define rural Wisconsin.

The two-year project involved all seasons and parts of the state.

“Wisconsin Barns” book signings will be 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 25 at Tuggers Cafe, Ashland, and at 4 p.m. July 31, at Uncommon Ground, 1401 W. Devon Ave., Chicago, where a photo exhibit of 24 images from the book stays up through Aug. 3.

For more about the book and its photos: www.ernestjschweit.blogspot.com. For more about barn preservation in Wisconsin: www.uwex.edu/lgc/barns.

Last: a reminder that colorful quilt patterns, painted onto 8-foot wood squares, hang outside of dozens of Wisconsin barns. Racine, Lafayette, Green and Kewaunee counties are among the coordinated efforts that coincide with the National Clothesline of Quilts project that celebrates ag history and respect for quilting as an art form.

Check out country drive guides to these buildings at www.quiltsonbarns.com, www.greencountybarnquilts.com and www.uwex.edu (search “barn quilts”). tend to involve pretty rural scenery as well as barns with quilt patterns.