The Round Barn: A Biography of an American Farm by Jacqueline Dougan Jackson

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Round Barn: A Biography of an American Farm

by Jacqueline Dougan Jackson
Beloit College Press

Reading The Round Barn: A Biography of an American Farm is like sitting on the porch of an early twentieth-century dairy farm and watching an era in American history pass right before your eyes. In a book that is part history, part elegy, and part memoir, Jacqueline Dougan Jackson—Jackie—tells the story of her family’s dairy farm with the unusual round barn that was famous in the Beloit, Wisconsin, countryside.

Her paternal grandfather, Wesson “Daddy” Dougan, built it in 1911 because he believed a barn braced on a central concrete pillar was cheaper to build and wouldn’t blow over in a tornado. And the circular construction allowed workers to move the cows through feeding, milking, and cleaning stations more efficiently.

But the round barn is more for Jackie. It’s a metaphor for her mission—an omniscient narrator, a real character, for “the round barn is in the middle of us all, and it sees everything. It is the center.” Jackie Dougan sees a lot, too. She’s a first-class noticer. Some readers may feel she notices too much. This sprawling 539-page book is the first of a projected three volumes. (The second has been published, and the third is due out later this year.) But she embraces what she sees with enthusiasm, a keen eye for detail and drama, and a big heart. When someone tells her not to get too involved, she thinks to herself: “Inside, Jackie knows she will always let herself get too attached.” (The book is written in the third person.)

Her attachments pay off for the reader. The rhythms of farm life pulse through the dozens of vignettes that make up the story of the round barn: the care and feeding of the animals; the production, delivery, and marketing of the milk; the sheer hard, and sometimes dangerous, work that keeps a farm going. We see how advances in science, the evolution of popular tastes, the vicissitudes of the economy, and world-changing events like the Great Depression and two world wars affect the farm for good and ill. But Jackie’s transcendent gift is her empathy for the family she loves and the people she meets growing up. The spirit of her grandfather, Daddy Dougan, pervades the book. His story exemplifies the intelligence, pluck, grace, and steadfastness that she sees in so many of the people around her.

Daddy Dougan is a self-made man, dedicated to God, family, and his dairy farm. He endures early life with an austere, withholding mother, struggles for years to put himself through college, then pursues the vocation of a Methodist minister despite his mother’s belief that he’s not good enough. He suffers the loss of his first child due to a doctor’s incompetence, and encroaching deafness finally forces him to give up the religious life he loves. Still, he persists, buying a dairy farm and marketing himself as “the Babies Milkman.” And he succeeds through hard work, devotion to cutting-edge agricultural science, and dedication to his customers and community. His philosophy turns on a principle he posts on the round barn for all to see. A mission statement for the farm ends with the declaration that farming is “Life as well as a Living.”

Jackie thinks being a dairy farmer is not so different from being a minister. “It’s a move from the giving of spiritual sustenance to the giving of physical sustenance, and the physical is of that most spiritual of foods, milk,” she writes. “Milk is used in this sense in the phrase, ‘milk of human kindness,’ and in the Bible, the Promised Land flows with milk and honey.’” She concludes that “it fits, that milk is described as spiritual, that spiritual is described as milk. Grampa knows it. And doesn’t that make the milkhouse, and the round barn, too, holy places?”

It’s a standard that isn’t always easy to live up to. One of the most powerful stories in the book is a gripping account of a moral crisis her father, Ron Dougan, grapples with as he struggles to keep the farm solvent during the Great Depression. He discovers contamination in a lot ready for shipment. He wrestles with the question of what he should do, for he desperately needs the money it will bring. “His stomach is knotted,” she writes. “He knows what he should do. It is still not too late. He knows what his father would do. He lies staring at the dark ceiling.”

Jackie writes affectionately about the men and women who work on the farm and those who buy her family’s milk. They’re a varied collection of quirky characters whose adventures range from the comic to the heartbreaking. But the most beautiful story of the book involves Jackie herself. She’s just thirteen and Billy Beadle is already in college. She idealizes him and cherishes every moment she’s near him during the summer he works on the farm. Billy goes off to World War II and never comes home. Many years later, Jackie returns to the church of her youth and alone, and in silence, offers a remarkable remembrance of Billy and the summer she fell in love for the first time.

The Dougan Guernsey Dairy Farm began in 1906 and lasted more than half a century until Ron Dougan closed it in 1967. Jackie grew up to become a writer and teacher of creative writing at the University of Illinois–Springfield. It’s a vocation she first glimpses in this book as a fifteen-year-old girl. She tells her beloved grandfather that one day she’ll write about him, the farm, and the round barn. “He crinkles all over his face and laughs silently,” she remembers. “He is pleased, she can tell.”

The round barn on Colley Road east of Beloit was torn down this past spring, a safety hazard. But it will never disappear, thanks to the promise that Jacqueline Dougan Jackson keeps with the publication of this and her other books that detail the history of a family as well as of American farming life. (Northwestern University Press published Jackson’s Stories from the Round Barn and More Stories from the Round Barn in 2000 and 2002, respectively.)