Rock County history comes to life in retired teacher's 'The Round Barn' books

  • Article by: ANNA MARIE LUX , The Janesville Gazette
  • Updated: July 27, 2013 - 12:05 AM

JANESVILLE, Wis. — More than a decade ago, Jacqueline Dougan Jackson stood in the doorway of a house on Colley Road that once held the heartbeat of a farm.

She slogged through the possessions of an earlier life: a horse harness slung on the back wall, yellowing issues of Hoard's Dairyman magazine, even a party hat with "Dad" on the band.

In a few days, people from an auction house were going to tote away everything she did not want.

As Jacqueline sorted through the memories of her family's passing farm, sometimes with tears in her eyes, she remembered making a promise to her grandpa at age 14.

"I told him that I was going to write a book called 'The Round Barn,'" she said.

At 85, Jacqueline is getting closer to finishing the project, which grew larger than she ever imagined, The Janesville Gazette reported (http://bit.ly/12daEYu). She has now written two volumes of "The Round Barn: A Biography of an American Farm," totaling more than 1,000 highly readable pages. She finished one volume in 2011 and another last year.

In February, she will publish a third sprawling book in her love letter to the former 200-acre farm and its people. The memorable cast includes family members, farmhands, friends and neighbors. Natives of Rock County will recognize many family names in Jacqueline's book, which is part history and part memoir to an unforgettable place that molded her like no other.

"The farm was so much a part of me," Jacqueline said. "It was so wonderful that I wanted to share it."

Since 2000, publishers have released more than 25 volumes that reflect Wisconsin's rural past. Jacqueline's books sit tall in the stack as amazing tributes to a way of life that has waned and is now "either vastly changed or has ended," she said in a recent interview.

The retired teacher has the heart of a farmer. But she spent her life teaching writing and English literature at the University of Illinois in Springfield, where she lives today.

She also is a prominent children's author and writer of 12 books. But in Rock County, Jacqueline is best known for revealing the heart of a beloved farm.

Her grandfather Wesson Dougan was trained as a Methodist minister. After losing his hearing, he decided to serve the Lord by producing clean and safe milk for babies. So, he bought a town of Turtle farm in 1906. Wesson built an unusual round barn in 1911, which allowed workers to move his Guernsey cows through their feeding and milking stations more efficiently.

Years later, Wesson's son, 21-year-old Ronald, listed the pros and cons of being a dairy farmer. When he decided to follow in his father's footsteps, he declared that he must fall completely in love with his cows. Like his father, he kept a trove of journals about farm operations. Jacqueline later drew on them to add detail and richness to her writing. Among them are records of production and breeding of every cow on the farm from 1915 to 1967, when Ronald retired from milking.

Jacqueline hopes her books, which cover a 70-year span, will teach people a thing or two about rural life in the 20th century.

In one heartbreaking chapter, she describes how "town people" are always leaving things in the country, including animals they don't want. "They drive slow and open a door and shove a dog out of the car and drive away fast while the dog runs and runs after them till it can't run anymore," Jacqueline writes.

She also tells some of her own profound stories.

In a gritty chapter, Jacqueline shows that she wasn't a squeamish 14-year-old. When the family vet, Dr. Arthur Knilans of Janesville, arrives to clean the afterbirth from a cow, Jacqueline is right there to help. The vet called it "unbuttoning" because a cow has knob-like fists inside the uterus that hold the sac in which the calf grows. Suited up in long gloves, Jacqueline reaches into the cow and is amazed at how warm it is and how far she has to stretch.

In another chapter, she describes a young hired hand named Billy, whom she follows around during her 13th summer. Later, her first love turns up missing after flying a B-17 bomber in World War II. Jacqueline watches for someone to put a gold star next to his name on the church honor roll, but it never happens. Decades later, in an act of respect, she asks the custodian to open the church storeroom. There, she finds Billy's name. Next to it, she places a gold star that she bought at the drugstore.

Last year, the Dougans' deteriorating round barn was torn down after efforts to preserve it were unsuccessful. No trace remains of the farm, which is now vacant land that sits across the street from the proposed Beloit casino.

But because of Jacqueline's keen eye for detail and drama, life on the Dougan farm will never die. People will always be able to pay a visit in the pages of her books.

As she finishes the third volume of her farm's biography, Jacqueline has learned and relearned lessons about food and, more important, stewardship. She praises the rise of the growth of small organic farms, the slow food movement and awareness about how food is produced.

"The story of the round barn is more than a look back," Jacqueline says. "It is a touchstone for a different kind of agriculture that could offer hope for the future_a future where we may again fall in love with our cows."

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Janesville Gazette

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