Schuster's Playtime Farm | Wisconsin thru my eyes
Schuster's Playtime Farm, and its Centennial Round Barn

November 10, 2009


A fellow named Craig "The Rooster" Roost introduced me to a project he undertook at Schuster's Playtime Farm at 1326 Hwy 12 & 18, in Deerfield, Dane County, east of Madison --- He rebuilt a cupola on an old round barn that was in a state of disrepair but has been undergoing preservation renovations since about 2001. I decided to drive over.


Schuster's is mainly a playtime farm. They offer hayrides, corn maze, barnyard activity, a haunted house, and bonfires. They offer specially tailored packages for groups, "from educational to adventure tours." They also offer tours, and night activities through the barn's offerings.

Meet Don Schuster. He met me when I drove in and was very kind to allow me the freedom to walk around.

The property was originally settled by Herman Gangstad, a Norwegian who had come to America. To many it is still known as the Gangstad Farm, in part because of the round barn.

Most were built as part of an agricultural reform movement that sought greater economic efficiency. There was a lot of excitement about this kind of barn in the 19th century, from roughly 1850 through 1936. They were quite popular, but over time, fell out of favor. Most round barns are found in the Midwest.

The Gangstad round barn was built in 1903. It is the only one still standing among several built in the area.

Professor Franklin Hiram King of UW-Madison influenced the design, urging that round barns were economical, stable and efficient. Some experts credit Dr. King with coming up with some of the most innovative round barn designs in the US. He worked at UW-Madison from 1888-1902 where he made his major contributions to applying physics to agriculture. He was most interested in soil physics, soil fertility, and agricultural physics such as that having to do with farm building ventilation.

Dr. King's influence regarding round barns affected Gangstad. He hired Lewis Lendborg to build him one. This photo of the Gangstad round bar, presented by the Schusters, was taken in the 1950s.

In the late 1980s the Schusters actively started looking for a farm for themselves. The land was in Don's blood. He was not able to buy the family farm. Don's wife, Theresa just happened to drive by the Gangstad farm in 1990 and spotted a for sale sign. Three days later the Schusters bought it. Don is a staff economist at the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, but over time has reduced his time there and devoted increasing time to the farm. Theresa works half-time for Madison Metropolitan School District as an occupational therapist. They have a boy and a girl, and both are mightily involved in the farm.

After living on and working the farm for 10 years, in 2000, the Schuster family started to recognize the historic importance of their round barn. They had plenty of visitors, and they all recommended that it be preserved.

Just a bit of history is in order.

Schuster's "History of this Centennial Barn" tells us that the barn was beaten up by a windstorm in 1949. The doors were open at the time and the wind got inside and busted the place up. The storm was so bad that the barn actually shifted and tilted on the foundation. The Gangstad family worked hard and managed to get the barn back in place. Experts opine that the barn would have exploded and been destroyed had those doors been shut.


The siding for the second story was originally of wood, but it had deteriorated over time. So the Gangstads sided it with aluminum in 1963.

In 1967, lightning struck the cupola and silo. The silo was severely damaged, and the cupola was forced down into the silo. As a result of this damage, the Gangstad family converted the barn from dairy cows to a hog barn. This is a photo presented by the Schusters of the barn in 2001. You can see that the top was repaired but there is no cupola.

The Schusters began a renovation program in 2001, a project which has made slow and steady progress over the years, including replacement of the cupola by Craig Rooster.

We should pause for a moment and summarize why Dr. King and others of his ilk thought round barns were the way to go. The short answer was "economic efficiency."

The Fulton County Historical Society of Rochester, Minnesota, says this:

"Round barns are more economical in several ways. The capacity of a circle is larger than that of a rectangle with the same amount of siding. Having the livestock all face the center saved the farmer steps when feeding. It was faster, easier and cheaper to build a round barn than a post-and-beam barn because the round barn uses lumber that is one-inch thick instead of foot-thick beams, and used nails instead of pegs."

But the historical society points out what came to be some of the downsides:

"They cost too much to repair, and farmers cannot afford to pay taxes on them for storage because the big modern farm tractors and machinery won't fit through the doors."

In addition, we have learned of other downsides. A biggie is that they can be very dark in the center. Further, their round walls make it hard to build additions if more space is required. This became an issue as industrialization grew and farmers acquired more and more mechanized equipment that had to be stored. I have seen some experts remark that ours was a rectangular society, and as a result, the round barn fell into disfavor as a result of that cultural phenomenon.


This is the "Gangstad" Schuster barn as it looked on September 13, 2009, when I visited. As you see, the cupola is back in place. I'll show you a better view of it in a moment.

The barn's foundation was built with limestone excavated from the farm area itself.


It is 60 ft. in diameter with two-foot thick limestone walls.


It contains a 12-foot diameter silo in the center with two-foot thick limestone walls.

These Dr. King-influence barns had two levels.


Stalls for the dairy cows were on the first level, and were placed around the perimeter of the barn, facing the silo at the center. The cows were arranged so they faced inward, toward the silo. The yellow arrow points to a set of stalls which faced the silo. The silo is noted by the green arrow. Note that new vertical load-bearing beams have been put in place.


The upper level provided room to store hay and straw. It is my understanding that in most instances, hay wagons could pull up to the second floor, sometimes all the way around the building, to deposit their loads into the center. Regrettably, I did not take any photos of the second floor.


The cupola on top, sometimes called the clerestory, allowed light into the barn. This cupola is the one built by Craig "The Rooster" Roost. It's a beauty.

I was fascinated by the first floor interior, and took some shots. Now that I know more, I wish I would have taken some others.


This is a stall for the dairy cows. The yellow arrow points to a narrow and shallow moat-like trench that went around the circumference of the interior behind the cows. I assume it was used to drain their excrement and urine.



I'd like to conclude by recommending you visit the Schuster's website and the farm itself.

I also want to comment again on Craig Rooster. I first met him when he was working to marry two old barns, the old way, in Edgerton in Rock County, to the southeast of Madison. I wrote an article about my visit to the project --- it was a handfull for me. I know the project is a handful for Craig as he and his volunteers are putting it together just as it was originally built.

One of Craig's many talents is to take wood from old collapsing barns and use that wood to build other things. In the case of Edgarton, he's marrying an old barn he took apart to an old barn that needs its own rehabilitation. I've published a story about the a Red Covered Bridge near Ft. Atkinson in Jefferson County. I commend it to you. He built the bridge from wood he took from an old barn nearby.

So this Schuster story is the second one I've doing about projects involving The Rooster. You can bet that when he is involved, it's gotta be fun and educational.