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Farming 160 years ago remembered

May 7, 2014 | 0 comments


When Mike and Pat Theim set out to restore the buildings on the five-acre farmstead they purchased in 1975 they started by seeking information about the farm. Their enthusiasm for restoring the buildings was fueled by their interest in what it would have been like for the original owners more than 160 years ago to carve out their farmsteads from the wild and untamed frontier.

               They have not just preserved the buildings on their farm but they also preserved the stories and the heritage of the early pioneer era.

               Theim says the farm on which he lives was not actually homesteaded by the original owners. It would have been purchased from the state of Wisconsin at a price of $100 for 80 acres. 

               “In some areas of the country the government offered the opportunity to homestead,” he explains. “Folks could establish themselves on land, clear it and work it and then after five years they owned it.  Wisconsin land was more valuable than that.”

               Theim has the original paper work that traces his land back to the beginning in 1848. That paperwork reveals that the first buyer was actually a speculator.

               He explains that there was competition for land back then as Europeans settling in the U.S. searched for land. The first owner of this farm bought it for $100 and turned around and sold it a year later. It changed hands several times but around the time of the Civil War the price jumped significantly.


               Theim says, “That means they must have had buildings established on the farm. This barn was likely built just prior to the Civil War.”

               Another indication of the age of the barn and house is the selection of the materials for construction.

               The frame of the barn is made from tamarack logs that are flattened on one side for placement of the roof boards. In around the 1880’s sawmills began to pop up all over. 

               Theim says, “Why would the builders have gone through all the work of cutting the trees in the marsh when sawed lumber at these mills was relatively cheap?”

               He says both the house and the barn have the same style of construction. The use of wood pegs and the style of the cuts and shaping was a signature of the builder. Each was unique and a close look at any old building will reveal who likely built it.

                Another building that served as a granary along with an additional bay on the barn was added in 1914. It was built with sawed lumber and the granary included a low basement where pigs were likely housed.

               When Theim restored that building he and his son-in-law raised the foundation on the structure so the lower area would be high enough to stand in.

               He says it was also around that time period, just prior to World War I, when farms were prospering in Wisconsin. As the farmer made money he was able to add on to and improve the buildings on the farm.

               In the 1930’s a milk house was added to the barn. Theim says some research indicates that the milk house was likely put on when the government required that any milk sold from the farm needed to be kept in a structure other than the barn where the animals lived.

               He has restored the milkhouse to look like the original structure on the outside but inside he has a sauna. He has turned the upstairs of his barn into a wood-working shop where he builds new items and restores old ones.  He also has a work area and storage for other things like his classic motor cycle and old farm pieces.


               Just as they have restored their buildings to be useful while still preserving their historical integrity, they also find new ways to use old antique items and to recycle old things in their creative décor both inside and outside.

               Pat says, “I like antiques and old things but I don’t acquire them unless I can find a use for them.”

               While the house and outbuildings on the farm are built with local cream brick, they have created an impressive patio using recycled paving bricks that include a variety of brand names engraved on the surface.

               Many of the bricks came from nearby Watertown which was one of the few larger, prosperous communities back in the era when this farm was established. The bricks were brought to Wisconsin from Ohio where the ground had the right type of clay for paving. Theim says it is strong like iron and does not deteriorate from the weight of wagon wheels, horse hooves and vehicle traffic as the local clay bricks would have done.

               One of the things Theim noticed about many of the old barns around the country is the painted advertising that was once done on them.

               Among the famous barn advertising was the popular Mail Pouch barns that were scattered throughout the country but mainly in the eastern part of the U.S. Theim says he was attracted to this type of barn décor but didn’t want to promote tobacco products. Eventually he commissioned an artist to do a whistling cartoon character from the 1960’s – Mr. natural who is surrounded by music notes.

               Theim says, “Some people who didn’t recognize this character jokingly asked if it was a self-portrait.”

               In his research of the farm he came across a website that helped him locate an aerial photo of the farm as it was. He had an enlarged print made of that photo and commissioned a photographer to do another aerial photo as the farm looks now, taken from the exact same altitude and angle as the older one. He framed the two large photos with boards from the barn and they hang side by side in the restored farm home.

               Inside the home are many of the pieces of furniture and décor that would have been used at the time the earlier families lived here. They have exposed and varnished some of the old hand-cut joists in the kitchen ceiling and, on the outside, tuck pointed the brick to make it look as it did when it was new.

               An addition to the home incorporates recycled materials to make it blend in with the setting.

               Visitors to the farmstead are greeted by an authentic, restored windmill that like one that would have likely been on the farm in the past. Theim says, “There could not have been a dairy industry without a windmill because cows require too much water to have pumped it by hand.”

               There was no windmill on the farm when the moved there, however, so he later acquired one from a neighbor and sent months restoring it.

               The 40-foot Aermotor windmill includes a steel platform that he made to replace the former wood platform that is the first thing to deteriorate on these old structures. The collar that protects the gears was in good shape and a coat of paint will help preserve it. The Babbitt bearings were in good shape, too, he says. His son-in-law climbs up to oil the system every month or so and the blades continue to spin freely as they once did.

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