Octagon houses and barns were part of fad

Monday, April 4, 2011

The octagon barn possibly built by Asbjorn Roe or his son, Ole, in the town of Amherst in winter 1876. (Wendell Nelson photo)

Special to The Gazette

Old houses are fairly easy to categorize and date by style, but barns are more idiosyncratic and therefore more problematic.

Octagon houses, for example, were a fad that swept the United States beginning in 1848, when Orson Fowler published the first edition of his A Home for All or a New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building. He proposed an eightsided house whose shape was inspired by nature, and that had its own natural ventilation.

(Second in a series)

Also, it was made of grout: a combination of "coarse sand, gravel and lime," according to Madeleine B. Stern’s introduction to the 1973 Dover reprint of Fowler’s book (it went through at least nine printings in various editions).

Stern wrote that the material was the result of his acquaintance with Joseph Goodrich, who built a six-sided house in Milton, Wis., in 1844. That house, which still stands, has grout walls. Partly because it was a station on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, the Goodrich House is an official State Historic Site.

As the result of Fowler’s book, octagonal houses – and eccentric variations – sprang up around America; the small city of Elkhorn, in Walworth County, Wisconsin, has three. The Richards House, in Watertown, with four stories and a four-story, cantilevered staircase, is said to be the largest house in Wisconsin. (No, the rooms in most octagon houses are not wedge-shaped.)

The Richards House in Watertown, Wis. Built in about 1854, it is one of the finest examples of the octagon fad of the mid-19th century. (Wendell Nelson photo)

We also don’t know where Asbjorn Roe or his son, Ole, got the idea to build an octagon barn in the town of Amherst. Most of the early barns in Portage County were "Yankee barns" – simple, gabled, single ridgepole buildings.

Did Roe see an octagon building somewhere in Wisconsin, or did he read about octagon buildings in a newspaper? Might he have even seen a copy of Orson Fowler’s book, which does have a short section on “Octagonal Barns, Carriage-Houses, Etc.”? Or did he only talk to someone who had seen such a building?

Most of the dated octagon houses that I am aware of were built in the 1850s and ’60s, but a few date from the 1870s. Many octagon houses, like this barn, had cupolas, which were probably copied from Italian country villas, the inspiration for Italianate and Italian Villa houses of the 1870s and ’80s; for the same reason, probably, they often had ornate brackets under their eaves. But this barn had no brackets – at least not in the extant photos of it.

However, eccentrically shaped barns — at least in Wisconsin, and probably elsewhere — seem not to have been directly inspired by Fowler, or if they were, they were a long time incubating.

Portage County’s two round barns that can be definitely dated, for example, were built in 1901 and 1905. Of course, round barns were also built all over America, from Vermont to New Mexico, beginning in at least 1862, according to Nancy Mohr’s book, The Barn: Classic Barns of North America (2001), including the famous, huge Shaker stone-barn in Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts.

According to the website, www.octagon.bobanna.com/WI.html, Wisconsin has – or at least had – 26 octagon barns, besides 10-sided, 12-sided, 14-sided, 16-sided, 20-sided, and even 13-sided barns. Some were built as early as the 1870s, and others as late as the 1920s.

In any case, we don’t know when the octagonal barn in the town of Amherst was built. All we can say is that it was probably built by some member of the Roe family. The father of the family, Asbjorn, bought his first piece of land in Portage County on Sept. 1, 1858, according to Vol. 49, page 139, of Portage County Land Patents. But that was for 80 acres in the wrong section, Section 9 of the town of Amherst.

He bought at least one other parcel in Section 9, and a very small one in Section 10, but he didn’t buy the parcel that his house and this barn later stood on, until 1865, according to Vol. O, page 548, of Warranty Deeds, dated Dec. 6.

He paid “Four Hundert” dollars for the 80 acres – $5 an acre, in other words. (The parcel was and is the southwest one-quarter of the northeast one-quarter and the northwest one-quarter of the southeast one-quarter of Section 10, Town 23, Range 10 East – again, the town of Amherst.)

The $5 an acre price suggests that the land was unimproved – that it had no buildings on it. If that was the case, then Asbjorn Roe was probably the first owner of the house, if not the barn, that came to stand on it.

The 1876 wall plat-map shows no buildings on any rural properties, but the 1895 county plat-map identifies "A. H. Roe" as the owner of that 80 acres in Section 10 and shows a tiny black square representing a house on the property.

Interestingly, Roe bought that 80 acres from a man who lived in Norway at the time of the purchase. Vol. O of Deeds gives the grantor (seller) as "Olref [Oluf?] Pedersen of the City of Mandal in Norway."

The agent who handled the sale, was "Theodor Nielsen of Winnebago County Wisconsin his attorney." Had Pederson been to America, and then for some reason returned to Norway? Or had he somehow inherited land in America, and then decided not to move onto it?

According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, Mandal is now a city of 13,840 at the southwestern tip of Norway. So its major industry is fishing, but it also is the home of "the largest wooden church in Norway, with 1,800 seats…" It was also the home of the sculptor Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) and the painter Adolph Tidemand (1814-1876).

The mystery is partly solved by an even earlier deed, Vol. E, page 157 (dated April 2, 1855 – received for record on Sept. 13, 1856). That deed recorded the sale of "One Hundred & Sixty acres at $1.25 per. Acre" or "the Sum of Two Hundred Dollars" for the West Half of North East Quarter & North [H]alf of South East [Q]uarter of Section No. Ten" in Town 23, Range 10 East (once again, the town of Amherst).

On the same day, Oluf Pederson (sic) also bought 40 acres in Town 24, Range 10 East (the town of New Hope) for $1.25, for a total of $50.

Both transactions, Numbers 4856 and 4857 respectively, took place at the "(Land) Receiver’s Office at Stevens Point Wis," and both were signed by "Albert G. Ellis Receiver," the same Albert G. Ellis who published Portage County’s first newspaper, The Wisconsin Pinery, and after whom Ellis Street in Stevens Point and the community of Ellis in the town of Sharon were named.

For our purposes here, what is also important about these two deeds, is that the grantor or seller was the United States Government. That fact, plus the $1.25 purchase-price, proves that Olref or Oluf Pederson or Petersen was the first private individual to own those parcels. In other words, the white man’s history goes back no further; any buildings on those parcels could not have been built before his 1856 purchase.

Also, he lived in "Waupaca County Wisconsin" when he purchased this Portage County land – not in Norway. So sometime in the nine and one-half years between buying the land in April of 1855 and selling it in December of 1865, he returned to Norway.

By so doing, he left us with another mystery: why did he go back? Was he homesick? Was he ill? Did a family member – his wife especially, or a child – die here and sufficiently discourage him to give up homestead-farming in the New World? Was there some other reason? (The 1860 U.S. Census for Wisconsin shows no one named Oluf/Olref Pedersen/Pederson living in the state in that year, so he must have returned to Norway between 1855 and 1860.)

Whenever it was built, and who ever had it built, the barn is now a wreck. But because it existed, we need to try to learn about its history and the identities and histories of its owners. Every barn, like every house and every person, has a story.

SOURCE: Wendell Nelson, "Octagon houses and barns were part of fad," Portage County Gazette (30 Apr 2010), 32, 35.


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