Jacqueline Dougan Jackson is a regional treasure. She's a prominent children's writer and the author of 12 books. One of them, The Taste of Spruce Gum, was a 1968 runner-up for the Newberry Medal. Now 84 years old, Jackson still produces important work that reveals the power and heart of Midwestern life.
Her newest work of nonfiction, The Round Barn: A Biography of an American Farm, is a remarkable compendium of family life on a Wisconsin dairy farm. The tale begins in the 20th century's early days and ends in its late decades. Jackson will discuss this book Nov. 7 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival.
The round barns of the Midwest are powerful emblems of progressive agriculture, though there are few left today. Jackson's grandfather built a round barn in 1911. The design was a new one, intended to promote efficiency in milking. The cows' heads all faced the barn's center, and their udders faced out. It was quicker for milk-hands to move in a circle, from one udder to the next, rather than move up and down the milking rows of a traditional rectangular barn. Jackson's grandfather also instituted cleanliness and milk-chilling practices on his farm. These innovations responded, in part, to New York City's "swill milk" scandal, which had resulted in several infants' deaths. He became a valued speaker throughout the Midwest and a frequent contributor to the farming press. In 1926, in Hoard's Dairyman, he wrote, "Here is a good rule for housing and handling of cows: Keep the cows happy."
Grampa Dougan did not set out to be a farmer. He felt called to be a Methodist preacher and served as a minister in McFarland. But he gradually lost his hearing. He started his farm as a second career attempt, taking on a great deal of debt in the process. He brought to his new venture a dedication to good works and finely honed public speaking skills. He became well known throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest, writing articles and lecturing about healthy dairy practices.
The Round Barn -- with its example of a family farm run with decency and devotion to meaningful labor, and its layering of details about 20th-century farming and milk marketing -- seems tailor-made for lovers of Wisconsin and Midwest history.
The book is so complete a compendium of one farm's life that it seems difficult to categorize at first. Included are encyclopedic entries that document farm life. We learn, for instance, why Guernsey cows, which were common in Wisconsin until recently, were so valued for their luscious, high-fat milk. (It was thought to be excellent for babies.) We learn about the illnesses and injuries the cows suffered. We learn about the development of amber-glass bottles as a way to keep the milk from turning when exposed to light, which oxidizes the butterfat. There are also fascinating indications of just how innovative a farmer Grampa Dougan was. During the 1920s, he invented the Mount Hope Index "for determining the worth of a bull." Until this time, common opinion held that the worth of a milk cow derived from its maternal line. Dougan noted in a 1923 talk, "We have a saying, that the sire is half of the herd, and he is half, or possibly more, in the interest of increasing production."
There are also amusing anecdotes about life on the farm. "The most delicious thing I've ever drunk is a half-pint of chocolate milk mixed with a half-pint of stolen whipping cream -- oh, that was good," says one of the hired men. There are moral tales, too. Unknown to his employers, one troublesome hired hand drinks while he shovels new silage into the silo. Young Ronald notices his shoe protruding from a mound of silage and helps save his life. The "pickled" farmhand has nearly pickled himself in the silage.
There are oral histories that derive from interviews with people who worked the farm in the decades when Jackie Jackson was a child. "We have one rule here, and only one rule," Grampa Dougan tells new hire Milton Koenecke. Koenecke reports that he was terrified to hear the rule, which turned out to be, "We treat our men like we would like to be treated ourselves." That impressed him. So did the unusual work hours for the Dougan farm's hired men, which were luxurious at the time. "I had a half-day off every week, and every third Sunday," he recalls. When Dougan had to reprimand a hired hand, he did it with respect and out of earshot of the others, says Koenecke.
There are also maps, diagrams and photos from the early 20th century. And there are profound nonfiction stories that open the inner lives of the family members like a pleated fan.
In a three-paragraph story titled "Owl," Jackie's father, Ronald, runs onto the barn floor shortly after it is built and notices a "small brown barn owl on the rafter." He's carrying a stone, which he lobs at the bird. He's astonished when the bird drops to the floor, "its wings thrashing in a frenzy of death." He sobs and runs down the barn ramp to conceal himself in the lilac bush. The one-page story ends, "His eyes don't see the sun dappled, heart-shaped lilac leaves. His eyes see nothing but the flopping, flailing owl." The story is as beautiful as it is brief, but it serves a much larger purpose than it at first appears to do. Ronald is an important part of this book and appears in numerous chapters, sometimes explaining how the farm works and sometimes serving as a character of depth and vulnerability.
Similarly, Jackie is a character with multiple points of entry. She is the author and the little girl who in the prologue promises her grandfather, "I am going to write you a book. I am going to call it The Round Barn." Her childhood mulling leads her to the book's structure and its form. "I can write … what the round barn sees," she says. "Not just what I know it sees. But what Grampa knows it sees. And Daddy. The milkmen. The cows. All of us! For the round barn is in the middle of us all, and it sees everything. It is the center."
Jackie also has her own profound stories to tell. In "Unbutton," a vet lets Jackie remove an afterbirth from a cow. The afterbirth is stuck on a knob in the uterus, explains the vet. So Jackie, suited up in long gloves, reaches into the cow to remove it. "She's surprised how warm it is inside the cow, it's like a warm bath," says the narrator. "She's amazed how far the passageway goes. She reaches down, down." Once she has peeled the knobs, 14-year-old Jackie uses the experience to learn about human physiology. She asks the vet whether women have buttons, too. He says the placenta stays in place without buttons in humans.
The curiosity and affection for both knowledge and the farm offer a sense of Jackie's inner life as she seeks out experiences that make some of her sisters squeamish. But the story does more than that, offering as the eager, seeking mind of the woman who collected these stories and wrote this book.
In a later story, Billy, a hand on the farm and a student at the University of Wisconsin's agriculture school, becomes 12-year-old Jackie's first love. He enters the Air Force, and his plane goes down. His body is missing for years and finally washes up on the Belgian shore. Jackie waits for his star to turn gold on the church honor roll. It never does, and years later she asks the custodian to open the church storeroom so she can replace the green star with a gold one she buys at the drugstore.
Readers will finish the book with a genuine affection for members of the family, who come alive in its pages. "Now, angels," says Ronald, imagining what heaven would be like, "they're obvious, with their big eyes and long lashes and soft breath and sweet voices continually mooing and hymning before the throne."
This review is one in a series of author interviews, book reviews, and other curiosities leading up to the Wisconsin Book Festival, which takes place Nov. 7-11.