A most interesting old barn in small town Hutchins

Hutchins, Wisconsin in Shawano County is a very small township, less than 600 people. But it hosts a super neat old-time home and barn complex on private property, with much of the barn down, but much of its interior in place. Structures like this are a central part of Wisconsin's culture and heritage. Frankly, viewing it gives you a sense of security, because you are reminded of how our nation was built, our roots, and how we need to hold all that together even with all our modern-day challenges.

April 6, 2009


Hutchins, Wisconsin is a small township in northwest Shawano County, about 539 people in the 2000 census. Mattoon is the largest population area and is in the center of the township. The township borders on the Menominee Nation to the east, Langlade County to the north

I was driving along Elm Road toward Park Ave. just a few miles east of Mattoon and came across a most interesting old barn complex in the Town of Hutchins. It really caught my eye. Next to it was a fairly new house. No one was home so I could not inquire about this barn.

So I took some photos and brought them home. I'm a city boy and no farmer to be sure. The complex intrigued me sufficiently that I decided to use the photos to explore how these complexes were designed and built. As you'll see, I did not have a lot of structure to work with, but enough to put the puzzle together through research. I invite you pros to correct anything I assess incorrectly. I also urge those of you unfamiliar with such barns but interested in them to conduct your own research. Finally, if someone has a photo of what this barn looked like when she was operational, I would love to include it.

Barns are fascinating. We are lucky in Wisconsin to have so many of them, all in various states of repair. Let me say at the outset that old barns are community landmarks --- that's the way I see this one. It is a link to our past, part of the American and Wisconsin tradition.

Well, let's get into it.


This is a view from the front. It faces Elm Road. One building still stands. The bottom of the building is built of fieldstone and that that stone rises to the same level as the stone structure to the left, which I believe was the main barn. As you will see, this is a dairy farm.

The standing building likely evolved over time in the way it was used. I am thinking it started as a "housebarn," meaning that the animals and the owners shared it. At the very least, it was built right next to the main barn and was attached to it, with an entry way between the two structures.

Housebarns were common in the old days, especially in areas settled by Germans. There was a tradition of housebarn construction in Germany back in the day, primarily because construction and land costs were so high and having everything in one place seemed more practicable. While they might have started transplanting this tradition in the US, they quickly found that there was plenty of land, plenty of timber, and a cultural taste for the freedom for having a separate house. So while many settlers might have begun with a house barn, they quickly transitioned to separate homes.


There were no trespassing signs up, so I tried very hard to honor them. Here I have zoomed in on a section of photography that allows us to peer through the front windows of the house. You can see they entry way into the barn from the housebarn. The housebarn and the main barn were separated only by a door. The housebarn probably hosted all kinds of facilities for running the farm in addition to the family. I would have loved to walk around inside the house, but did not.


Above the stone base, the builders used sawn wood to build the remainder of the structure. Timber was plentiful in Wisconsin, as were sawmills, so this makes good sense. I suspect the main barn structure was built much the same way, with a gabled roof probably of the same material.

Use of sawn wood would be as opposed to half-timbered construction which did not eat up as much wood. You see this kind of construction in old Medieval buildings. This architecture used exposed timber wood framing with the spaces between filled with plaster, brick, or stone. They were very cold inside. Advantages were that this architecture did not use a lot of timber, and the timber that was used could be fashioned with axes in those places where sawmills were not available.

Our housebarn employed a metal roof. I guess I never gave it much thought, but I was a bit surprised to learn how far back metal was used in architecture. Use of metals as just about as old as human civilization. One source said that use of metal roof dates back to at least 970 BC when the temple in Jerusalem was given a copper roof. The Romans used it extensively --- copper and lead were the main types. The Industrial Revolution brought iron and steel to the forefront.

For farmers in Wisconsin, there were several advantages to metal roofs. They could stand strong winds, they were fire resistant, they looked good, and if combined with a good drainage system, the metal could purify rain water which in turn could be stored for human and animal use.


This is a side view. Note the lower windows are quite high when compared to the front door. I can only imagine that lofts were in there for living or storage. It's neat to see the way the gutter is mounted, bringing the water from the rear to the front of the housebarn, perhaps to collect for use as we described earlier. I want to focus your attention to the peak of the gable roof.


At the top center, you can note a very small hip roof angling down, probably to deflect the water away from the building.

Let's now move to the left of the housebarn as viewed from the front to what I am calling the main barn.


This is the main entry for the cattle to go in and out. You can see that there were windows on either side of the entry. You can also see there is a concrete walkway and metal and concrete structures in there. Let's get a closer look inside.


At about the center of the photo, you see the stanchions. A stanchion is a frame used to secure cattle in a stall or feed trough. To right of center, you see "stall-like" positions which seem to have concrete half walls attached to lally columns.

I managed to work around the outside of the facility, again not wanting to walk inside, and got these interesting shots. Frankly, I found all this to be a lot of fun, and I have tried, within my time constraints, to explain as much of what we can see as I am able. It's quite a learning experience.


You're looking straight into the main barn from the front entry. There are stanchions to the left and the right. The concrete walkway is clear down the center. You can see the remains of the stone silo to the rear. It's a little hard to measure from this view, but you can see the rear wall --- this was not a large barn with regard to square footage on the ground level.

Let's get a closer look in here.


You are close to the rear wall and you can see the silo on the other side. Those columns are called lally columns. They are made of steel --- most homes with basements use them to this day. They held up steel beams which carried the load from a floor that would be built on top, in this case, probably for storage areas. You can see the steel I-beams sitting on the ground in the snow.


Here is a look at the stanchions from the other end, the silo end. Broadly speaking, there are three ways to house dairy cattle: free stalls, tie stalls or loose housing. I believe these are tie stalls.


I have to be careful now because I risk getting in way over my head. The Ministry of Agriculture Food & Rural Affairs in Ontario, Canada has published a factsheet on "Mastitis Prevention for Dairy Cattle: Environmental Control" in which they describe various housing designs and provide graphics. This is a very interesting document for several reasons --- the big one for me is that every time I look at something involved with farming, I am impressed by the enormous amount of science involved. You just can't go out there and wing it. You need basic and continuing education. This is why agriculture universities are so popular. I know from my previous life that many in less developed countries send students to these universities to take back what they've learned to improve productivity and profits.


I believe the cattle are brought in the main entry down the center concrete walk and then put into these tie stall stanchions. There were three designs in the day: the single headrail tie stall, the low arch and chain tie stall, and the stanchion tie stall. There are newer designs, including "mushroom" and "suspended" free stall partitions that offer greater freedom of movement. The document I cited above form Ontario shows diagrams of each and talks to the technology.

The individual cattle are walked into their stalls, separated by those curved stall bars. Note the one horizontal stall bars. It is attached to a vertical lally column to add support for the overall structure. The cow's head goes through the oval "ties" and their food is placed on the other side. They lean forward and eat. Their rear ends would be facing you if there were any in there, and should they have to do their duties, they would do them largely on the concrete walkway behind them.

There are all kinds of things to worry about in these kinds of barns. Cleanliness is huge --- very large. The concrete entry "runway" must be kept very clean. Obstructions which could come in contact with teat ends (nipples from which the milk is sucked or flows) must be kept out of the way so as not to contaminate them. The housing system needs to protect them from winter winds, and provide them shade. Once they have been milked, care must be exercised so milk drops don't freeze on the teats when the cattle are released to go back outside. Above all, the trick is to make their stay in here as comfortable and non-stressful as possible.

I don't know how to evaluate how large these stalls are, but they look small to me. If so, that has traditionally made the teats more vulnerable to injury. Different kinds of stall surfaces expose the cow's teats to different levels of injury. There should be a 2 percent slope to the back and the surface must be such that it improves footing. Cow comfort must be factored into the design. Various kinds of ties allow varied levels of head movement, up and down and to the sides. Generally speaking, stanchions are fairly restrictive, which is why many farmers have moved to more open and free designs.

The stall needs to be kept dry to reduce the incidence of bacteria. Straw is often used. Sand and sawdust are less desirable.

Ventilation is important to reduce high temperatures, high humidity and manure odors, all of which stress cows.

That's about as far as I can go. I simply wanted to emphasize that there is a lot to be concerned about, a lot to learn and practice.

Once the cows have given their milk, they are marched out and back to the fields. If the farmer has another batch, he brings them in. My guess is that these farmers work pretty darn hard keeping the rotations going, securing the cows, moving in their feed, and keeping the place clean. That's a lot of work.


Let's switch over to the silo. In my book, silos are neat, especially ones like this built of fieldstone. Wisconsin has more silos than any other state, some 60,000, half of which were made of wood. Silos have an entrenched spot in Wisconsin farming history. They stand as symbols of our dairy industry and serve as a centerpiece of our cultural heritage. I drive south to St. Louis a lot, and when I get into Illinois, I say, "Where are the silos?" Of course they don't need them there like they do here because they are more in the grains and corns than dairy farming.

The word silo comes from the Greek, siros, which translates to an air-tight pit for storing grain. There are those who say it comes from the Latin, siru, meaning cellar. In both instances, the practice was to bury grain in underground pits to save it for future use and protect it. In the 19th century, Europeans such as A. Riehlan of Germany and M. Goffart of France did a lot of work studying the preservation of forage (feed). Early silos in the US were designed as trenches, perhaps 12 ft. long and six ft. wide.

The first silo built in Wisconsin was done in 1877 by Levi Gilbert. His was also a trench, six feet wide, six feet deep and 30 ft. long. It worked.The first above-ground silo built in the state was done by Dr. L. W. Weeks of Oconomowoc, just west of Milwaukee.

Wisconsin has been among the leaders in dairy farming in our nation. Our winters demand a good way to store winter fodder. This helps explain why we have so many.

Peggy Lee Beedle has written a wonderful article, "Silos: an agricultural success story," about Wisconsin's silo history.

In the 1870s, growing wheat was the main agricultural endeavor in the state. But farmers found it very hard to succeed at this in this climate and with this landscape. So they looked for alternatives. That's when they latched on to the dairy industry. Cows, however, were seen as a spring and summer dairy producers only, making earning a profit tough. Cows could produce in the winter, but required good food. Farmers searched hard to solve the challenge of having plenty of food for them in the winter. This was an especially attractive goal because the milk could command higher prices in the winter.

Wisconsin farmers had experience using airtight silos to store corn for feed. It took a while, but they slowly accepted the idea of using silos for storing winter fodder.


Square stone silo, Kwaunee County. Presented by Wisconsin Public Television, "Wisconsin Barns: Stories in Wood & Stone."

They started with rectangular or square silos, but moved toward round ones because they were experiencing too much rot in the rectangular ones.

The purpose of a silo is to store bulk materials, in this case, fermented feed known as silage. Silage is fermented, high moisture fodder that can be fed to cud chewing animals like cattle. Fermentation involves the chemical conversion of sugar to alcohols or acids. This process creates a variety of flavors, acts to preserve food, and enriches food with protein and vitamins, among other things. Fodder is simply animal feed given to the cattle, including hay, straw, compressed and pelleted feeds, corn or maize, oils and mixed rations, and sprouted grains and legumes.


Earthen Trench Silo


Concrete-sided horizontal silo


Wooden-sided horizontal silo


Pile Silo


Bag Silo

There that there are many different kinds of silos. I have seen several of these in the state and did not know what I was looking at. I've already mentioned the trench. I'll show you a few, pointed out by Kevin Coleman, Intrepid Historical Services. I commend his site to you. It's terrific.

Most of the stone silos in the country are located in Wisconsin. Stone silos were popular in Wisconsin because there was plentiful stone to use, known as fieldstone, left by glaciation. Ms. Beedle wrote:

"The earliest (fieldstone silo) probably involved using the stones as they were found, with plenty of mortar to hold them together. A later technique used by professional stonemasons was to split the fieldstones and place the faced sides out, using smaller stones for infill. The third method, originated in the 1870s, was to split all the fieldstone and lay it will a small amount of mortar, Building with fieldstone had started with Wisconsin's early settlement and lasted until the turn of the century when it was mainly used for barn foundations and silos. Stone silos were built in Wisconsin using all three building styles. Other stone silos were built of quarried rock, such as limestone."


The stone provided very thick walls which could withstand the pressure exerted by the silage inside. You can also see steel rods to reinforce the walls just to be safe --- masonry alone is usually insufficient to hold everything together when the silo is filled and full. Selection of the masonry to be used must be done carefully. You do not want any moisture to seep in from the outside --- you need masonry that is practically air tight, unable to absorb any water. Sometimes builders would line the inside with a good plaster, coal tar, or creosote.


Our silo is located at the far end of the main barn. Early on, some farmers built their silo right in the barn. But that took up too much space. So they put it outside the barn but right next to it and connected it to the barn's feeding area.



There are several things I want to highlight with these two photos.

First, you are looking at the silo from inside the barn. You can see that the bottom of the silo is below ground, in a sort of pit I think you could say. You can also see that there is a connector to the main feeding area --- load the fodder from the top and pull it out from the bottom straight into the feeding area where the cattle will be lined up in their tie stanchions. Finally, to repeat, you can see the silo is built of fieldstone held together by some kind of mortar and reinforced steel rods.

I want to take a closer look at that section of our silo where we see the reinforced rods.


For the moment, set aside the steel rods. Ask why is this section so open? It is obvious it was built that way. That did not just fall apart.


I don't know for sure why that clean-cut separation in our silo is there. My guess was that there was a connection there between the silo and the barn. So I searched around and found a stone silo built around 1900 in Manitowac County, presented by Ms. Biddle in her presentation described earlier. I've put a yellow arrow to show where that fieldstone round silo connected with the barn. So I think I'm right --- the slot is where there was a connector to the main barn.

You will recall from earlier photos of the silo that it is in the rear of the barn and easily accessible from the road. History has shown that it is located at the gable end, as in the Manitowac example. That gives us a little insight into how the roof of our main barn was placed.

I have learned that as a rule of thumb, a round silo was 2.5 to 3 times taller than its diameter. Ms. Beedle said that the average diameter of Wisconsin silos was 12-14 feet, making their height from 35-40 ft, usually even with the barn's roof. Four to six feet below ground was usually the preferred depth, which looks about right for our silo here.

My overall vision, then, is that our Hutchins main barn looked something like the one we see in Manitowac, that it was connected to the silo by a wooden connection box and connected to the housebarn by a door.

If you hunt around the internet, you will find many Americans love old barns. One guy says "Old Barns (are his) Fave Things."


James M. Hahn pointed out an old barn on his Grandpa's property. He said:

"When I was a kid he had cows in here. I can remember putting up hay in this barn. Old barns are always fun to play in."

You might recall I mentioned earlier that our old Hutchins barn seemed small to me for the cows. Jim Hahn's Grandpa's barn is really small!

I'll close by going back to Ms. Biddle's writings. She said:

"During World War I, the State Council of Defense, which was in charge of organizing community efforts to support the war, initiated a campaign to convince farmers to build silos as part of a larger food raising conservation effort. Building a silo was equated with patriotism. This campaign was a success; in 1917 over 10,000 silos were built in Wisconsin, more than in any previous year."

"Much of Wisconsin's early 20th century rural landscape is still visible today --- its style and charm enhanced by the silo's distinctive silhouette. It is important to recognize silos as more than adjuncts to the barn. They should be studied for the insight they reveal into American technological progress and preserved for their role in the history and development of the Wisconsin dairy industry."

I too love Wisconsin barns! I have created a
photo album of classic Wisconsin barns. I'm now motivated to build up this section faster. Barns are fun.