Portage County’s only octagon barn has uncertain history

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The town of Amherst octagon barn in 1965, when it still stood relatively straight. (Photo courtesy of Lou Ann Floistad Sather)

Special to The Gazette

Portage County has had many rectangular barns and a few round barns, but only one – as far as I know – octagon barn. It used to stand in the town of Amherst, but fell down about 15 years ago.

Back in 1976, while I was looking for interesting old farmhouses, I happened upon this barn, and photographed it. Now that the building has collapsed, the only records of its original appearance are photos, personal memories, and – now – this written history.

(First in a series)

It had at least two pairs of large doors, which took up most of two of its eight sides, and a number of small doors and windows.

According to Carl and Lou Ann Floistad Sather, the current owners of the farm (she has lived there all of her life), one pair of big doors opened onto a grass ramp that led to the main floor of the barn, which was the haymow; below that, the cows were kept and milked. (The Sathers said they sold the cows in 1990; in other words, the barn was still standing then.)

It also sported a cupola with eight shutters or ventilators. And it had a steel roof, which was probably not original, but replaced an earlier cedar-shake or shingle roof. (Despite the fact that the barn has fallen, the metal roof looks shiny and rust-free; the Sathers said they regularly repainted the roof.)

So far, no photos of the barn in its prime – freshly painted, at least – have surfaced. But a photo from about 1965 shows the building still standing relatively straight, albeit weathered gray, as is the small milk house that stood in front of it. (The Sathers said that they never remember the barn being painted, but the milk house now has a bright coat of white paint.)

A photo from February 1969 shows the barn leaning, but also shows a silo to its northwest. That silo was made of staves – vertical wooden boards – but gradually was blown apart and knocked over by the winds, according to the Sathers.

The octagon barn in February of 1969, showing it beginning to lean. Note also the stave silo to the left side of the barn. (Photo courtesy of Lou Ann Floistad Sather)

When I took my photos, seven years later, the barn was more rundown and darker gray. It leaned more, its doors were slightly askew, and a few siding boards had fallen off the walls.

Successive photos show the barn leaning more and more. One, from the mid-1980s, shows five-or six-foot-wide lower-wall sections splayed out more than they were in my 1976 picture.

Finally, a photo from the early 1990s shows the barn decidedly slanting to the northwest, and it probably fell over in the next year or two. (Carl Sather said that in about 1935, one sagging wall was jacked up and stabilized with cement.)

Now the barn lies on the ground, with the walls mostly concealed under the roof, which projects here and there in sharp angles.

When the barn was built is a mystery. Lou Ann Sather said a date-stone – or inscription in the foundation mortar – gave 1889 or 1898 as the construction year. She wasn’t sure which – nor even if those were the only choices.

The foundation is buried under the barn wreckage, and the stones have been whitewashed over so many times, she said, that the date is illegible – ironically, when the wooden walls, more vulnerable to time and weather, were not painted for many years.

If the barn was built that late – even in 1889 – Ole Roe would have been the first owner, not his father, Asbjorn, who probably homesteaded that farm, as we shall see. In 1889, Asbjorn was 75 or 76 years old, and apparently lived in the village of Amherst with another son, Knudt.

We can, however, estimate the age of the farmhouse from its exterior and interior architecture. According to Carl Sather, the house was built in stages, because the first owners didn’t have much money. (That was true of many frontier American houses.)

The Roe/Peterson/Floistad house in the Town of Amherst, viewed from the southwest corner. (Wendell Nelson photo)

The back – east – part, a one-story gabled wing now, was built first, if we judge from the its window- and door-moldings (casings). Some are mere 1-inch x 4-inches plain (unmilled) boards – very simple and utilitarian.

Others are wider, decoratively and longitudinally milled boards typical of Greek Revival houses, most of which – in central Wisconsin – were built from the 1850s to the early 1870s.

Further evidence dating the house to those years, is one of the kitchen doors: it has vertical panels, a porcelain knob and a lock assembly attached to the inside exterior of the door, rather than mortised inside it, as most later locks are. A similar door leads north off of the living room; it has four vertical panels but a mortised lock.

The front part of the house, or main upright, is more or less a cube, but a very plain, unornamented cube. Outside, the tops of the second-story windows are only about 18 inches from the eaves of the house, suggesting that the upstairs had rather low ceilings, but also that the first owners, again, did not have money to waste on high ceilings.

Further evidence of scarce money is the flooring in both the kitchen and living room: six-inch boards, probably pine (not small strips of oak or other hardwood), and painted (not stained and varnished). Those in the center of the living room are now (in 2010) covered with old linoleum, which is in turn covered by a rug.

Moreover, the Sathers said, even the front cube was built in two stages. It started as a one-story house, and later the second story was added.

The woodwork in the living room is later – from the 1880s or possibly early ’90s – than that in the kitchen. It features decoratively milled boards, but they are narrower than those of the more ornate kitchen window.

Moreover, each corner has a rosette, a little square of wood, with an ornate pattern carved in it. And the lower walls have baseboards and plinth blocks (pedestals). This is added evidence that the front cube was built later – added onto the original or at least earlier east part.

Further, a door on the south outside wall of the house has two Roman (round-headed) windows, which would likely date from the 1870s or early ‘80s, and the front door has a segmental-arched (slightly round-headed) window, from the Italianate period of (in Central Wisconsin) of 1870-1885. (These dates might be a little later here, because this is a farmhouse; architectural styles debuted on the East Coast and came West with settlement. They first tended to appear in big cities, later in towns, and finally on farms.) But that same front door also has a white porcelain knob, which would, again, date it earlier rather than later – 1860s or ‘70s.

Outside, a veranda adorns the south third of the front (west) wall, and the west half of the south wall, of the house. It has turned posts and spindles, which means it was probably constructed in the 1880s or early ‘90s. (The veranda looks largely intact, so it has survived probably over 100 years fairly well.)

Likewise, a rather large, three-sided bay – probably also a later addition – adds a touch of class to the south wall of the house, beyond the east end of the veranda. But its walls are of wainscoting (bedboard), lumber that was often used – besides for covering the lower portions of interior walls – for porch ceilings. In other words, the bay may be a fancy addition for this house, but it was made of rather cheap materials – perhaps left over from some other building project.

Finally, the age of the house may have little to do with the age of the barn. When most farmers homesteaded land, the first building they built was a house – some sort of shelter for their families. Then they built outbuildings, as money allowed. But there are stories of farmers building granaries and barns first, and of their families living in those future outbuildings until crops could be put in and harvested – and until cows and other livestock could be purchased and their products sold – to bring in money. And sometimes the family shared those buildings with the animals. Only later could those families have the luxury of a house that they alone occupied.

In other words, just because we can more or less date this house, doesn’t necessarily mean we can very accurately date the barn. First, the two buildings may have been built in the same year, or they may have been built years apart. Second, we don’t know for sure that this was the first barn on the property; maybe there was an earlier one that became too small, or that burned. Then the house is square, but the barn is octagonal; do those disparate geometric shapes give us any clues as to when each was built?

The constructions of both the house and barn may be mentioned in the old newspapers, especially the gossipy columns from outlying areas of the county. Correspondents — often farmer’s wives — sent in news of births, deaths, weddings, trips to Stevens Point and Waupaca city, barn-raisings, house fires, disease outbreaks, and other occurrences. In this case, the Town of Amherst columnist may have reported on these buildings going up, especially the barn, because it had an unusual shape. But so far, those reports have not surfaced, and searching for them, issue-by-issue, in the old newspapers, would take many hours.

SOURCE: Wendell Nelson, "Portage County’s only octagon barn has uncertain history," Portage County Gazette (12 Mar 2010), 14, 18.


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