The Round Barn – A Biography of an American Farm: January Book Club Selection
What would you do if you promised your grandfather at age 15 to write his story? If you were Jackie Dougan Jackson, you’d eventually gather up all 70 years worth of letters, documents, and assorted papers stored in the attic; interview hundreds of people, and publish the story of The Round Barn, one hundred years after it was built. It would include not only the building of the unique round barn W.J. Dougan designed to house his dairy operation, but also stories of the family, workers, customers, and even the cows!
We featured Jackie in our spotlight, Family History is For Everyone: Jacqueline Dougan Jackson – author, professor, family farm archivist. As family historians, we can learn valuable lessons from Jackie in writing our own family stories. In the preface to The Round Barn, we learn how Jackie collected the mountain of papers related to the barn and family business. Then she started interviewing anyone who had anything to do with the farm. She writes:
My parents were partners in this, and it enriched their old age. I’m sorry I didn’t get to certain key people before they died-although some had died before I was born, or before I was old enough, or savvy enough to know what I was wanting to do. (To The Readers of the Round Barn XI)
There is no time like the present to start writing your family’s history. With the start of a new year, why not commit to interviewing your elderly family members? Get their stories before they are gone. Gather up the letters, the journals, the stuff of a person’s life. Remember, family historians are not hoarders, they are archivists! Check out Jackie’s writing tips at the end of this article.
Jackie’s grandfather, W.J. Dougan was a remarkable man. He began his adult life as a Methodist minister, but had to find a new occupation when he went deaf at a young age. He bought a farm in Wisconsin and started a dairy business. Because of his deafness, everyone wrote him notes, which were saved and are part of the papers Jackie had to draw from for her book.
The prologue to The Round Barn grabs your attention immediately and gives some insight into “Daddy Dougan,” as he was known by all.
There is the land. In the center of the land are the farm buildings. In the center of the buildings is the round barn. In the center of the barn rises a tall concrete silo. On the side of the silo are printed these words:
The Aims of This Farm
- Good Crops
- Proper Storage
- Profitable Live Stock
- A Stable Market
- Life as well as a Living
Each chapter in The Round Barn is a surprise. It begins with the story of Jackie’s father, Ron, throwing a stone at a small barn owl and watching aghast, as the owl falls to the ground, dead. Written in the present tense and not necessarily chronological, the book is organized around the cycles of farm life. The Round Barn envelops us in the world of the early 20th century when “Daddy Dougan” created a unique system of milking cows that ensured clean milk for babies. His creative advertising, impeccably honest business practices, and fair treatment of his employees made for a thriving business.
Jackie writes with wit, humor, and a down-to-earth style that charms.
The material is related through the eyes of Jackie, myself, who lived through much of this time, but it is not a personal memoir It is a collective biography. The entire work chronicles an inestimable way of life that in this land has waned and is now either vastly changed or has ended. (The Round Barn p. IX)
When she started The Round Barn project Jackie already had a busy life – teaching writing at a university and tending to the needs of a family. With the amount of material she had gathered the work ahead must have seemed overwhelming. I asked Jackie to share how she started the monumental task of writing The Round Barn series and how she came up with it’s unique organization. Jackie answers those questions in Volume IV, coming out this year and sent me the following preview.
In 1979 I had a sabbatical; my approved project was to write the barn book. I set up a card table in my old bedroom at the farm, still with no idea how to organize my vast hoard. My failed attempts were stuffed in a corner. “OK,” I thought. “Ignore that you still don’t know how to go about this—just do what your class did—but not ten sentences, make it ten pages.” One memory, one event, write rapidly, don’t ponder, and quit at the foot of the sheet, even in the middle of a sentence. Grab a clean paper, start another. Random, yes. But at least production!
Upon return, realization came with surprise. I had ALREADY begun the book. I was eighty pages into it! And the organization was now clear. Not chronological, but geographical. Start in media res, but in the middle of the farm, not the time—begin with the barn, the central, unifying “character”—tell the barn stories, and spread out from there as far as the material would go. It surely would travel all the way to Norway, where so many Scandinavian farm workers returned from their year on the Dougan farm.
Then came the poetic license I’ve used in the Foreward of each Round Barn book since. Jackie, after her promise to Grampa, conceives this geographical organization, and makes the diagrams: the concentric circles for space and the cylindrical column for time. The process needed to be explained at the start, including the use of the present tense, so the reader wouldn’t be confused. Also, third-person was necessary, for though Jackie was in some of the accounts, this wasn’t her memoir, it was the farm’s. So, again, the narrator had to inform the reader.
I have also realized, over the years of writing, that there was no way I could have kept my promise to Grampa. There could have been a slim volume of six or seven of the family legends. The little boy who milked on his feet. The worker buried in silage. The no-legged farmer. Grampa would have enjoyed those. But we were still living the story. Delivering milk, detasseling corn, inseminating cows. I didn’t have the knowledge or perspective to write anything beyond the legends.
That sabbatical the book wasn’t finished, nor the next. In between, some writing was done. By then I had far too much material. More kept coming in, farmhands’ stories, the photographs from their albums. Miles of tape from my parents: the growth of the milk business, seed corn developments, American Breeders. All needed transcription, interpretation. Everything enriched the tale. I plugged onward; the book grew.
In the mid 9o’s at a writer’s conference as one of the faculty, I had an evening hour to share my work. Another on the faculty, Professor Reginald Gibbons of Northwestern, listened to my reading, and shortly thereafter told me he wanted to publish my book. Astonished, I said it wasn’t finished. But that was okay, he said—the Press could bring out a collection of stories already completed, and do the finished book later.
“Stories from the Round Barn,” Northwestern U Press, 1997, was so well received that the Press followed it with “More Stories” in 2002. I finally wrapped up the whole saga in 2005—it had morphed into three large volumes. But by then, publishing was in flux so dramatically that Reg, now a friend as well as editor, said the Press couldn’t manage the “Big Book.” He and I tried a number of other U presses. The answer was the same. Finally, with the help of my nephew-producer-editor Jeremy Schmidt (I’m rich in editors!) we found a publisher in my own college, Beloit. Its press had been inactive for years, but Professor Tom McBride agreed to revive it, and be its editor. Volume I of “The Round Barn: A Biography of an American Farm” came out in 2011, followed yearly by Volumes II and III.
Jackie shared three tips for writing our own family histories:
Don’t try to begin at the beginning–get down whatever you find, in any order–later, it can be organized, and puzzle pieces may fit together. (Or, why should it ever be organized? Just because I’ve tried–)
Seek out people, and have your leading questions that will get them to talk and reveal–and then listen, listen, listen! Take down as best you can–with notes, or a recorder, or quickly write after you’ve left your source–if you can, return and bring up the subjects again, to be sure you got it right, or there may be more that person will add.
Seek out letters and documents and be sure to look behind pictures and into drawer cracks. Show someone a letter or document they may have some knowledge of, ask about it. Treasure every photo you find. Get a hold of the old people who can identify the photos–so many aren’t written on, and you will never know who that person is, or what the setting is. Photos also stimulate a family member to talk–if you have albums, scrapbooks, try to go through them with someone who might know more about the items than you do.
I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know Jackie as much as I have. Reading The Round Barn – A Biography of an American Farm has given me a lot of food for thought in writing my own family’s history. There is no time like the present to get started!
Best of luck in your family history endeavors.
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