By Katherine Becklin-Johnson
It rose up like a beacon on the 200 acre dairy farmstead, set in a valley near the wild Pecatonica River in the lush green unglaciated hills of Southwest Wisconsin. This simple wooden and stone structure bore a steep pitched roof. It was painted a distinctive red, mimicking the barns of my farming ancestors next to the Hadeland Fjord in Norway. The barn’s trim was white, a simple accent to a simple honest way of life. Some might say it was homely but to me it was home—the heartbeat of my daily existence.
It had a countenance of sorts—expressing a humble yet proud attitude that conveyed: “important work is done here”. A silo stood at attention next to the barn filled with precious silage to feed the herd that sustained our way of life. Our trusty herding dog Patches was an invaluable helpmate–waiting to be summoned to do his job bringing the cows in from the pasture to the barn at milking time.
The foundation of the barn was made of stone and its buff color accented the red barnwood perfectly; there was a symbiotic harmony to the blend of colors. A small stone milk house was attached on the East end of the barn where the liquid gold was carefully poured into 10 gallon cans and placed in a 4 foot by 8 foot concrete cistern filled with ultra-cold water from our well until the cheese factory collected the cans.
The upper section of the barn, the haymow, a large and cavernous space, provided a dry space to store the newly mown hay—and smelled of alfalfa, sun, sweat, and toil. This hay provided winter nourishment for the cows below when they couldn’t graze on green summer pastures. A large oats bin filled a small square section of the haymow.
Inside the main level of the barn behind the cross-hatched Dutch doors, our herd of dairy cows each had their own stanchion and a soft straw bed on the concrete floor where they could lie down and rest. In the winter, the cows helped warm the unheated space—our breath rose up in the still cold air. The stanchions kept them in place so we could safely milk them and provided a water trough and hay and silage to munch on. Twice a day these bossie beauties had to be milked; we were their servants.
The walls of the barn were whitewashed for cleanliness—this was a place of food production, after all. Our gigantic yet regal Percheron workhorses, Jerry and Ben, took their places in a wide stable just as one entered the barn. Behind them was the stray cat feeding station—multiple large bowls Dad filled with milk so the feral cats would have nourishment to be the mousers the barn required. These felines knew my father had a kind heart but he also recognized their role in keeping the barn free of vermin.
The barn was the nerve center of the farm. All life revolved around the cows. Ours were Holsteins, the black and white spotted variety. We rarely gave them names—Dad was too afraid we’d get attached. Farm life quickly teaches a child the arc of life and death. The cows’ milk provided our income, our livelihood. Their well being was our well being; we were inextricably linked. We didn’t raise cash crops. Instead the crops we grew on the fertile soil nourished the cows: corn for silage, hay, and oats. The cows’ needs dictated our every action: a cow struggling to give birth, a cow with mastitis, a cow with a sudden decrease in milk production. They could be cruel masters—we only took one family vacation when I grew up because we couldn’t get away from the rigors of milking cows morning and night.
From the time I was a young child I remember going to the barn with Dad. At first I stayed out of the way. There is a distinct rhythm to milking time and it must be respected. Then I was allowed to do small chores—putting milk into the cats’ bowls. As I grew, I got to feed the calves or give the horses hay. Then came carrying pails of milk to the milk house forty feet away and pouring it into the strainer-topped milk cans. Butterfat content mattered. But sanitary practices were essential–bacteria counts were carefully monitored by the cheese factory.
Of course the farmhouse was important—it is where we sat around the kitchen table, ate bountiful meals lovingly prepared by my mother, fed the threshing crew, entertained, and where we slept. But there was something magical about our barn. It was as if becoming a part of its purpose and essence made you a real contributing member of the family. The barn was the place I discussed the important issues of the day with my father. I was, after all, the quasi “hired man” until my brother was old enough to help. Dad gave me a percentage of the milk check when I was 11. We set up a checking account at the local bank for my portion. Dad said, “Now you have a stake in our livelihood—when the farm does well, you will do well”. We tuned into Milwaukee Braves World Series’ games, discussed politics and world affairs, and Dad listened to me recite my high school forensics speeches.
The bonds created by father and daughter, animals and child, were strong and unbreakable. Very much home.
© 2021 Katherine Johnson-Becklin
Katherine holds a B.S. in Education and an M.S. in Business-Marketing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has National Association of Gifted Children best practice coursework as well as a CSAC designation. Katherine enjoyed a multifaceted career in business and education. She has served on numerous boards in service of education. A proud life-long Lutheran, Katherine is writing her memoir from which this excerpt is taken. The dairy farm she grew up on was less than a mile as the crow flies from the Lutheran church her Norwegian great grandfather helped found. Her farm bordered the one room country school she attended. She is passionate about the rural experiences that helped shape her.