Articles - Octagon Barns of Ozaukee County - An In-Depth Study
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. As you drive around the county you will see old Clausing barns as well as reproductions of the unique architectural style. This style has inspired the architecture of a church, school house, drive-in restaurant, hospital and nature center.
The research for this study started with a personal touch, that is, an interview with two descendants of the early Clausing settlers. Ray Clausing and his sister Janice Clausing Hill live and work in Ozaukee County and have vivid memories of milking cows in their grandfather’s octagon barn.
History of Octagon Buildings in Wisconsin
So why are there so many octagon buildings in Wisconsin? In the 1850s a man by the name
of Orson Fowler became interested in the octagon shape and wrote a book entitled, A
Home for All. In the book he praised the advantages of octagonal buildings. Mr. Fowler
visited Wisconsin in the 1850s but most of the octagon barns were not built until the 1880s
and later. It is surmised that he influenced those structures that later became popular in
Click any photo to enlarge
Because of its shape it was thought to be more resilient to strong winds which made it popular in this area with robust winds off Lake Michigan. The largest single grouping of octagonal barns in Wisconsin was in a narrow band on the east side of Ozaukee County. Nowhere else were there so many barns of this unusual shape.
In the 1860s and 1870s dairy farming began to replace wheat farming and with that change there was a need for a barn of larger size and different shape to house the animals and store their feed. Because of this change from wheat to dairy farming, the octagonal barns became more popular from the 1880s to 1920s. It was at about this time that agricultural colleges began promoting this design directly to farmers and students as they taught progressive farming methods.
Octagon Barn Construction
It was believed that the octagon shape was a better utilization of space, more efficient, labor-saving in design and cheaper to build since it required less building materials. Ray explains that the square footage of the eight-sided barn design is determined by the length of the side walls.
A fieldstone foundation was most often used, 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 plates upon which
the rafters rest were joined to make a continuous ring, thus converting the lateral thrusts
of the roof into vertical loads upon the outside walls making a self-supporting roof. This
simplified construction, lacking an elaborate truss system for the arched roof, was seen
as an advantage as it left more storage room in the middle of the barn.
The octagon barns usually had a cupola on the top to let in light and to help with ventilation. Ray recalls the somewhat dangerous task of climbing up to the cupola to repair the glass panes.
The barns built after the 1880s often had a silo erected in the center ring or against one side wall. In 1949 Ray and Janice’s family were proud to purchase Harvestore silo. This glass-fused steel tank model was one of the first to be built in the area.
The Clausing Family and the Ozaukee County Octagon Barns
The Frederick Clausing family came to America from Saxony in 1846 and settled in what was then Washington County (an 1853 split formed Washington and Ozaukee Counties) on land in the wooded area along Lake Michigan. He and his wife Dorothea brought with them their four sons and two daughters. After arriving in Wisconsin they had one more daughter.
An important reason why the octagon barns were popular in Ozaukee County is because the community was blessed with Frederick’s two grandsons, Ernst and Theodore. Ernst, a carpenter, first got the idea for the octagonal shaped barn from a picture in an agricultural magazine in 1885 possibly a reference to Orson Fowler’s book. He and his brother Theodore built one round barn and then built ten octagon barns. Ernst and Theodore were cousins of Ray Clausing and Janice Clausing Hill’s great grandfather William.
The following is an in-depth study of each Clausing barn starting with the most southern in the Town of Mequon (now City of Mequon) through the most northern in the Town of Grafton. They are not in order of construction since exact dates are not always known. In addition, one barn described was not built by the Clausing brothers.
Town of Mequon Barns
The William Clausing "Maple Knoll Farm" was originally painted white and was on the east side of Port Washington Road at the site of the current Mequon Pavilions shopping center. 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 was a cousin to Ernst and Theodore. He passed the farm on to his son Louis and Louis passed it on to his son Ray and Ray’s wife Irene. Their children, Janice, Ray, Jr. and June grew up on this beautiful farm.
The William Clausing barn is 64 feet across with walls that are 17 feet high. It is 26 feet on each of the eight sides. The hay mow is 40 feet from the floor to the ventilation cupola. The foundation walls are fieldstone and more than two feet thick. Ray said that the barn housed 28 head of dairy cattle plus several pens for young stock. The cow barn walls were white washed.
Ray and Janice have fond memories of working with their father and grandfather as they milked cows in this barn. Like most of the other Clausing farmers they worked the fields with a Case tractor that was purchased at their cousin’s hardware store (Clausing and Liebau) in downtown Grafton.
This 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. 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.
Ernst and Theodore’s cousin John Clausing had a barn built for him on Freistadt Road north of the Milwaukee River on his "Riverdale Stock Farm". It was in sections 13 and 24 and the date of construction is unknown. The barn was eventually torn down.
The brothers built a barn for their neighbor, Leonard Maul, on the west side of Port Washington Road between Glen Oaks and Highland Roads in Mequon. It was in ruins in 1950 and later blew down in a tornado.
Another octagon barn was built in 1897 for Henry Kiekhaefer for a cost of about $1,000. Henry was Ray and Janice Clausing’s great great grandfather. His farm was named "Lake View Farm" and was at the southwest corner of Highland Road and Lake Shore Drive east of the present-day I-43 in Mequon. The barn was painted grey and was the largest barn measuring 72 feet across and 32 feet on a side. It had a cow weathervane and eventually had two silos added to the outside of the barn. Henry’s grandson Elmer Carl Kiekhaefer grew up on this farm and was the founder of Mercury Marine which started in Cedarburg.
When the Sisters of Notre Dame purchased the property they stated that they had no interest in preserving the farm buildings. However, in 1983 this Clausing barn was designated as a Mequon Landmark. The barn collapsed and was dismantled sometime after 1983. The farmhouse was taken down around 2004 when Concordia University Wisconsin expanded and developed the bluff restoration project.
Ernst and Theodore built their last and one of their largest (70 feet in diameter and 29 feet on the side) octagon barns in 1898 for their cousin Julius Clausing. It was on the original Gust Clausing farm which had become known as "Gusanna Farm", named after his parents Gust and Anna. It was located on the east side of Port Washington Road south side of Bonniwell Road. It was later owned by Gust and Anna’s grandsons Arnold and Roland Clausing. They experimented with mow-drying of hay by blowing air through it. Roland tore the barn down in 1976.
They built an octagon barn for Frederick Timpel in 1889. The Timpel family was related to the Clausings by marriage. The farm was located on the northwest corner of Port Washington and Bonniwell Roads at what is now 13669 North Port Washington Road. In the early days the house served as the Bartel Post Office. The barn was painted red and there was a granary on the hay barn floor with three windows. In 1983 it gained the designation as a Mequon Landmark. Gary Chapman was the owner when it burned down in February 1993.
The octagon barn that Ernst and Theodore built for their brother Henry Clausing was later
sold to their distant relatives the Koopman family. It was built in 1898, at the southwest
corner of Pioneer and Port Washington Roads in Mequon. It had six small paned windows
for light besides the cupola. Unfortunately, it burned down in 1954 as a result of a
threshing machine fire. It was later replaced by a hooped-roof barn which today appears
to be part of a vacant farm that is for sale.
The first octagonal-shaped barn that the brothers built was for their cousin Frank Vocke in 1888. This 64 foot wide barn is on Pioneer Road in Mequon and was designated as a Mequon Landmark in 1983. The five-sided corner posts are a unique construction feature. Originally there was a horse weathervane on the window-less cupola. It has a Dutch door, white-washed beams in the cattle barn, two fan lights above the open hay mow barn, and bins built in with chutes down to the cattle barn floor. The farmhouse and barn have been very nicely restored and remain as a private residence that does not accept unannounced visitors.
The first barn that Ernst and Theodore Clausing built was round and was painted red. It was for their brother Richard Clausing who farmed on Pioneer Road west of Port Washington Road, next door to the Vocke farm. It had nine four-paned windows and four doors. After Richard it was owned by their sister Bertha Clausing Benz and her family. It was later torn down.
Town of Grafton Barns
The octagonal-shaped red barn that Ernst and Theodore built in 1895 was 60 feet in diameter. It was built for Theodore Clausing on Highway C and Lakefield Roads in the Town of Grafton. It was farmed by the Clausing family for about ten years and then was sold to Julius Tetzlaff. William Tetzlaff started farming in 1920 and attached a milk house and silo to the barn. It has remained in the Tetzlaff family and has been a llama, alpaca and emu farm. The farm is named "Octagon Farms" and is a private farm that does not accept unannounced visitors.
The most northern barn was built in the Town of Grafton on the west side of Lakeshore Road south of Ulao Road across Highway C. The farm was on both sides of the road. It was built for E. Edward Clausing and was possibly one of the last Clausing barn projects. Unfortunately the structure collapsed.
One barn has been admired by drivers for years. This barn is beautifully maintained in Washington County’s Town of Jackson. It is on the north side of Western Road just west of the railroad tracks. It is said to have been the farm of Lester Hardt’s father who purchased it during World War I. It is quite possible that this barn was built by the Clausing brothers.
One Ozaukee County octagon barn was not a Clausing barn. It was built at a cost of $1,500 by Julius Schnukel in 1896 on the William Haeuser farm and was painted red. It straddled a property line near 11656 North Port Washington Road in Mequon. The North Shore Cinema is now at the original barn site. The horse weather vane had been blown off and it was in disrepair in 1982 when the Mequon Landmarks Commission considered moving it to a lot behind City Hall for the purpose of a community center. Unfortunately, the cost of moving it was considered prohibitive. However, in 1986 the barn was moved to the Children’s Area of the Milwaukee County Zoo and today serves as a working dairy barn.
Why did the construction of the Clausing octagon barns end around 1900? Several reasons have been given. One reason was the standardization of the construction industry. Another possibility is that the mechanization of American agriculture was more suited to a rectangular barn design.
The octagon barns may no longer be the standard but the shape will continue to be an influence on Ozaukee County architecture. The Clausing barns remain as reminders of the past and are indeed Ozaukee County treasures.
For further reading check out these sources available at the Hazel Wirth Archives Research Center:
The Architecture of Wisconsin, Richard W. E. Perrin, 1967
Barns of Wisconsin, Jerry Apps and Allen Strang, 1977
Barns of Wisconsin, Jerry Apps, Photographs by Steve Apps, 2010
"The Clausing Octagon Barns: Ozaukee County Treasures", Nina Look, Ozaukee County Historical Society Newsletter, "Timelines", May 2012 and Society Website, May 2012
Clausing notes from Ozaukee County Historical Society files, Mrs. W. Eccles, 1962
"The Clausing Octagon Barns: Ozaukee County Treasures" OCHS manuscript and photographs, Fred Derr, Nina Look, Bob Ross and Pat Ross, 2012
Descendants of Friedrich Clausing, Delores Rauschenberger, 1982
Descendants of Friedrich Clausing, A Supplement to the 1982 Genealogy, Lenore Kloehn,
Early Ozaukee County Sketches, Ozaukee County Historical Society, 1967
The Heritage Guidebook, H. Russell Zimmermann, 1976
"History of the Clausing Barn", Old World Wisconsin website
Images of America, Cedarburg, Lisa Curtis, 2011
Interviews with Ray Clausing, Pat Ross, 2012
Interviews with Ray Clausing, Janice Clausing Hill and Theodore Clausing, Fred Derr and Nina Look, 2012
Interviews with Beth and Scarlet Lloyd, Fred Derr, Nina Look and Pat Ross, 2012
Iron Fist, the Lives of Carl Kiekhaefer, Jeff Rodengen, 1991
"Locations of Octagon & Round Barns in Ozaukee and Washington Counties" Ozaukee County Historical Society, 2012
"Map of Ozaukee County Wisconsin", Hennessey & Co., 1913
"Milwaukee County Zoo" website, 2012
"New Helps for the Busy Cornbelt", Successful Farming, 1955
Newspaper articles, various local, state and national papers, various years
"Octagon Barn, Cedarburg Area, Wis.", post card, Arnie’s Foto Service, no date
"The Octagon Barns – Celebrate Ozaukee County", pewter ornament, John Reichert, 1993
"Octagonal Barns", Ozaukee County website
"Octagon Barns in Mequon", Cub Scout report, Den #3, Pack #65, Mequon, no date
"Old World Wisconsin" website, 2012
Ozaukee County photographs taken by Bob Ross, 2012
Ozaukee County Township plat maps, Ozaukee County Historical Society, 1994
"Round Barn", Wikipedia
Sketches of Cedarburg, Celebrating 100 Years, Harold Hansen, 1985
USGENWEB Cemetery project, Ozaukee County list, 2011
"Wisconsin Coastal History Trails – Lake Michigan", James Purinton, Wisconsin Coast Zone Management Development Program, 1976
Wisconsin Heritage, Bertha Kitchell Whyte, 1954
Wisconsin Round Barns List, Dale Travis, 2002
This study was conducted by Ozaukee County Historical Society Volunteers Fred Derr, Nina Look and Pat Ross. Consultation with Ray Clausing, Janice Clausing Hill and Theodore Clausing was invaluable.
Nina Jo Look, Ph. D.
Ozaukee County Historical Society