Q & A with Jerry Apps
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why did you decide to write "Barns of Wisconsin?"
Jerry Apps: The old barns, one of Wisconsin's important icons, are rapidly disappearing as dairy farming in Wisconsin has dramatically changed during the last thirty years or so. These old barns represent an important part of Wisconsin's agricultural history, when the state turned from wheat growing to dairy farming. The old barns also are symbols of our diverse ethnic settlement in Wisconsin. Each ethnic group tended, at least in the early days, to build barns that it was familiar with. Thus we have examples of German, Finnish, Polish, Norwegian, Dutch, Swedish, English and many other types of barns. When we lose a barn, we lose a part of our history. I felt it was important to capture some of this history before it was too late, and so many of the great old barns had disappeared.
Beyond these reasons for writing the book, barns are aesthetically pleasing. They make wonderful subjects for artists and photographers.
WHS Press: Your son, Steve, took the beautiful photographs in the book. How did you decide which barns to feature?
JA: We tried to include barns from throughout the state. We also tried to include examples of many different kinds of barns, from those with ethnic roots, to round and octagonal barns, barns built in the mid-nineteenth century to those built as recently as the 1940s. Some we included because they were special—wonderful to look at.
WHS Press: How was writing "Barns of Wisconsin" a personal experience?
JA: I grew up on a small dairy farm and spent many hours during my growing up years working in a barn. I knew barns first hand. I knew their smells and their sounds; I knew what they were like in winter and in summer. The barn on the home farm was critical to our family’s survival—the entire family was connected to the structure, much more than to the farm house.
WHS Press: How has Wisconsin's landscape changed since the first edition of "Barns of Wisconsin" came out in 1977?
JA: We have lost thousands of the old barns since I wrote the first edition of "Barns" back in 1977. We've also lost many small family-sized dairy farms since then. Much larger dairy enterprises have replaced the small dairy farms and the old barns. The newer barns, where cattle are housed inside year around, are often enormous—some sheltering 1,000 cows and more. It is much less common today to see red barns with dairy cattle grazing on lush green pastures.
WHS Press: What do you hope readers take away from "Barns of Wisconsin?"
JA: I hope readers, in addition to enjoying the photos in the book and my stories, will realize what an important place the old barns played in the history of our state. I also hope that those who own an old barn will consider preserving it, so that not only can people read about old barns and look at photos of them, but that they can actually see one, touch it, listen to it, smell it, and consider its special story.