A vanishing symbol of our Ozaukee County landscape is the old barn set amongst a collection of sheds and pens and of course, the farm house. In early life on the farm the barn was the central focus, not the house. Some farm families actually got running water in the barn before getting indoor plumbing.
Ozaukee County’s most famous barns are the octagonal shaped barns built by the Clausing family. During the 1880s and 1890s the Clausings built ten octagon barns along a narrow band on the east side of Ozaukee County. Nowhere else in Wisconsin were there so many barns of this unusual shape.
To see one of these octagon barns is truly a remarkable experience. A few weeks ago I stood in the hay barn of a Clausing octagon barn and felt an overwhelming respect for the barn’s past. I was taken back in time when I stopped and took a few moments to think about the men whose hard labor built the barn and imagined the children who worked and played in its light and shadows.
As I walked on the floor I felt the strength of the old wooden planks. I took in the sound of the wind between the cracks in the boards. I enjoyed the light shining through them. It is simply hard to describe what it feels like to stand in the center of the hay barn of an octagon barn and look up at the roof structure. As I walked in the cattle barn I imagined the silent story of the smells and gentle movement of the livestock that were raised in its chamber.
Memories of old barns bring families together as they reminisce about the old days and the hard work on the farm. In fact the old Ozaukee County octagon barns have brought the Clausing family together for two reunions, one at a working barn in Ozaukee County and one at the Clausing Barn at Old World Wisconsin.
Ray Clausing and his sister Janice Clausing Hill live and work in Ozaukee County and have vivid memories of milking cows in their grandfather Louis’s octagon barn. They will tell you that there are distinct smells and sounds associated with these old barns. Ray has fond memories of walking into the barn and finding his grandfather hard at work. Janice has special memories of dividing her time between helping her mother in the farmhouse and helping Ray with the milking chores, while often getting into a bit of child-play trouble.
Ray explains that the octagon barns usually had a fieldstone foundation, typically with cut limestone corners. The floor was constructed of various materials, such as fieldstone, poured concrete or wood. The roof rafters were joined near the top by an octagonal timber ring. The octagon barns usually had a cupola on the top to let in light and to help with ventilation. He remembers the somewhat dangerous task of climbing up to the cupola to repair the glass panes.
The Town of Mequon farm where Ray and Janice grew up was originally William Clausing’s farm. He passed it on to his son Louis who passed it on his son Ray, Sr . This farm was on the east side of Port Washington Road at the site of the current Mequon Pavilions shopping center. Janice said that if today you stood in the parking lot of the ACE Hardware store and looked east you would be looking at the spot where the 1890 Clausing octagon barn had stood.
William’s octagon barn was 64 feet across with walls that were 17 feet high. The hay mow was 40 feet from the floor to the ventilation cupola. The foundation walls were fieldstone and more than two feet thick. Ray said that the cattle barn (lower floor) housed 28 head of Guernsey dairy cattle plus several pens for young stock. During his childhood a special feature of the farm was a 1949 Harvestore silo, one of the first to be built in the state.
Unfortunately as history goes in many areas of Wisconsin the Clausing farm was in the way of progress including a highway and a shopping center. William Clausing’s extraordinary barn was dismantled and moved to the Old World Wisconsin Historic Site in Eagle in 1978 and now serves as the site’s restaurant and conference space. This 19th century rural Wisconsin living history site is owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society. It is a blessing that Old World Wisconsin has preserved the William Clausing Barn and has it available to the public for their enjoyment and education. The Old World village is a nostalgic step back in time and the Clausing Barn is an integral part of this delightful experience.
In the summer of 2010 a severe wind storm caused extensive damage to the grounds and buildings of Old World Wisconsin. Ray said that when he heard the news about the terrible storm he feared that the Clausing Barn and especially the cupola would have perished. He was relieved to see only minimal damage to the cupola but disappointed to find that the weather vane (in the shape of a cow) made by his grandfather had blown off and could not be found. Since that area of the Old World Wisconsin grounds received the most destruction, it seems that one of the purported advantages of this type of barn are true in that it can withstand strong winds.
Octagon barns have almost all disappeared from Ozaukee County, but much like our beloved covered bridge, they remain as a symbol of our county’s past and a way of life that we endear. Fortunately the William Clausing Barn remains as a reminder of Ozaukee County’s past and is indeed a treasure that can be enjoyed by families visiting Old World Wisconsin.
Perhaps you would like to see a Clausing octagon barn for yourself. The season for Old World Wisconsin begins May 1. For more information visit the website at oldworldwisconsin.org
For an in-depth article on the Ozaukee County Clausing octagon barns as well as fascinating photographs click here
Nina Look, Archivist
Ozaukee County Historical Society