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The three-story barn, on right, was joined to another 50 cow barn, on left, at the hay mow level.<br />

The three-story barn, on right, was joined to another 50 cow barn, on left, at the hay mow level.
Photo By John Oncken

Revisiting three of Wisconsin's original "mega dairies"

Sept. 27, 2012 | 0 comments

The questions keep coming about three dairy farms that I originally wrote about 17 years ago and have revisited several times since.

These were not the typical small family dairies of the day (1850-1971) milking a few cows and struggling for survival. Rather, they were modern, progressive and big - really big - even for today, decades later.

These large dairy herds that prospered in the first seven decades of the century were certainly unique and have proved interesting to dairy producers and folks with an interest in Wisconsin dairy history even today - thus the questions that never end.

The three dairy farms that were located about a mile apart in Genesee township in Waukesha County include: Brook Hill Farm (900 cows); Wern Farms (600 cows) and Keystone Farm (300 cows).

Each was family owned by families who had immigrated from Wales in the mid-1800s and, even though they were family owned, each had its own niche in the corporate dairy world.

Interestingly, many of the buildings on the three farms are largely intact today - old, rotting, ready to fall down in some cases, but still standing - enough to give one a true view of three mega dairies of over 50 years ago.

Brook Hill Farm, owned by the Green family, began in 1902 and in the next few decades had expanded to 900 cows marketing a special dietary type of milk. By the early 1940s, the dairy was using artificial insemination with genetics from a fledgling company that later became American Breeders Service (ABS).

The farm began producing certified milk in 1907, developed a Bangs disease vaccine in the 1920s, converted to milking machines by the late 1920s and remodeled the entire facility to emphasize cow comfort in 1951.The herd was dispersed in 1958.

Keystone Farms dates to 1853 when the Rowlands family came to Wisconsin and by 1916 was distributing milk to Milwaukee and Chicago through Milk Specialties Co. owned by the Green family of Brook Hill Farm just up the road.

Keystone also became a major ice cream producer for the Milwaukee area until the late 1960s when the herd was dispersed. Former owner Bob Rowlands is a retired real estate executive.

The third mega dairy in the small triangle was Wern Farms that was homesteaded in 1848 by John Williams who later sold the property to David Williams (unrelated). In 1909, Wern Farms began bottling milk and wholesaling it to Chicago and Milwaukee by train, and in 1929 began home delivery.

The farm also began producing certified milk and expanding the farm and cow numbers to a peak of about 650 milking cows housed in a series of barns including the famed three-story barn consisting of two milking levels and a huge hay mow.

By 1944, brothers Homer and Chet Williams were operating the farm, with Chet later taking control. The Wern Farms' milk bottling business was sold to Bordens in 1956, but the farm continued milking until the Guernseys were sold in 1971 and the Holsteins in 1977.

Chet Williams remained active in registered Guernsey and Holstein activities including exhibiting cattle at major dairy shows including World Dairy Expo until his death in the late 1980s.

It's hard to believe that there were large dairy herds operating in Wisconsin nearly 100 years ago, but it's true. Not only were they milking big dairy herds, but they were producing and marketing ice cream, specialty milk and bottled milk for door-to-door and wholesale delivery.

Brook Hill and Keystone Farms have long ago passed out of their dairying family ownership, but for some reason, the buildings still stand.

Wern Farms is still owned by David Williams, the elder son of Chet.

Sharing memories

I recently made another trip to Wern Farms and Dave shared some more memories and a tour of the dairy facilities still reminiscent of the "glory days" of Wern Farms.

"Growing up here was a zoo," Williams says. "We farmed nearly 2,000 acres, milked 600 cows, had about 90 farm employees (and a dozen milkers) that were fed three square meals a day, and had 47 milk trucks making home deliveries. I hated to go to school as a young child, - I was afraid something would happen on the farm and I'd miss it."

"Most of our employees were single men. Remember, there was a long Depression and little work in the '30s and the three farms (Wern, Brook Hill and Keystone) were always looking for employees," he continued.

"We had a big bunkhouse for single men," he says. "Me and my brother Phil (who died at age 31) were never afraid to be around so many strangers. I remember 'Big Joe' Kalcicky and Herman Depke, who were foremen and longtime employees. They watched out for us - they were are guardian angels."

"We had 22 teams of horses and 22 drivers," Williams explains. "When tractors became readily available after World War II, we became an Allis Chalmers demonstration farm and at one time had over 20 Allis W-D tractors."

From the close-by highway, the farmstead with its cream-colored buildings is indeed impressive and the famed three-story dairy barn is still a traffic-stopper. The double rows of windows no doubt cause a lot of head scratching and people asking themselves, "What is that building?

The two milking levels housing 50 cows each are topped with a big hay mow.

I walked into the lower level and saw a truck tire standing alone and forlorn in the aisle. The stanchions are gone, as are the barn cleaners, but the two rows of Guernsey and Holstein cows standing and eating hay can be easily imagined.

I heard the wailing of what I thought was a young child and asked Dave (who had stayed in his pickup) where that youngster might be. "There's no one in the barn. You went into the only entrance," he said. "You must be hearing ghosts."

I surely don't know, but someone was crying in that old barn and I don't think it was my imagination. But, what?

Behind the three-story barn is another 50-cow barn that is joined at the hay mow level by a walkway. Each hay mow is so very big and must have held hundreds of loads of loose hay before balers came on the scene. It's hard to believe they were actually full of hay at one time.

Next to the two barns is another barn, two former ice houses that held ice harvested from a nearby pond, the bunkhouse, milk processing plant, farm office and the original farm house. There is also a rack holding a dozen or so mailboxes for the tenants living in apartments created within the several buildings.

Across the highway, the biggest dairy barn used during the Wern Farms milking heyday still stands, although deteriorating.

'There were 122 cow stalls in the unit that had three milkers overseeing them," Dave says. "I remember that the three milkers didn't get along at all. I'm not sure how they did it because they took care of the "string" completely from feeding to herd health to milking."

Just outside the long barn and fronting the road was the bull barn holding eight bulls, the original well house, a former horse barn, a small (but the original) farmhouse, and a big garage formerly housing the 47 home delivery trucks and now a farm equipment shop.

The near 2,000 acres of hills and valleys that Wern Farms actively farmed during its peak has shrunk to some 500 acres. On part of it, Dave plants corn and part of it is home to Wern Valley Sportsmans Club run by Steve Wiliams, Dave's nephew, that features pheasant hunting and sporting clays competition.

Ahead of their time

The nearby former Keystone Farm remains with two of its three dairy barns standing, dairy processing plant still active for other uses, and the old bunkhouse and various other buildings serving as apartments.

As for Brook Hill, some of the buildings remain: a couple of barns, the bunkhouse, laboratory, milk processing plant and storage buildings. Again, many of the buildings are rented as apartments.

It's amazing to me that so much of these three historic dairy farms remain still standing. My guess is that their existence will not be for long as the barns decay and other buildings become hard to maintain.

When they go, history will be lost and memories will fade as houses are planted where barns stand.

These three dairies and many like them across Wisconsin were much ahead of their time and were doing things we are now rediscovering. They knew about cow comfort, herd health, dairy nutrition, employee management and dairy marketing.

They each worked directly with UW-Madison and state dairy experts and commercial companies. They were very knowledgeable, smart, modern and progressive, but without computers, cell phones or electronics. They were also mega dairies - 75 years before the term was invented.

They were also a big factor in making Wisconsin America's Dairyland.

Any more questions?

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, email jfodairy@chorus.net.

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