Of course, some of the round barns of Vernon County are of newer construction but most of the round barns here were constructed between 1890 and 1930. Used primarily as dairy barns, round barns didn’t appear here until dairy farming did.
Indiana may call itself the “round barn capital of the world” but they did so before anyone realized that Wisconsin actually has more round barns than any other state, Indiana included. Wisconsin could have cried foul over the situation but decided to let Indiana have the motto, seeing as how it was an honest mistake and they’d already spent so much money getting it emblazoned on things. That’s just how we roll in Wisconsin.
Unique to the US, agricultural colleges at the time promoted round barns as easy to build, more efficient, and wind-resistant. The round barn’s silo and hay chute are in the center of the structure, allowing for easier feed distribution than the more traditional rectangular barn with the silo at one end.
Oddly, many of the historic round barns of Vernon County were built by the same man: Alga “Algie” Shivers (1889-1978).
Algie Shivers, the son of a slave who came to Wisconsin via the underground railroad, lived his entire life in Vernon County. After studying carpentry at George R. Smith College in Sedalia, Missouri, and a tour in France during WWI, Algie returned to Vernon County. It was then that he began running his family’s farm and constructing his neighbor’s barns – 15 round barns of Vernon County are attributed to he and his crew.
Round barns fell out of favor with the arrival of electricity: more traditional, rectangular-shaped barns work better with modern milking systems, mechanical barn cleaners, and square hay bales, all of which benefit from straight lines in their surrounding architecture. Consequently, round barns are a bit of a novelty – and an endangered one, at that.
More than half of round barns of Vernon County are long gone, victims of fire, disuse, and progress. Even the round barn that Algie Shivers built on his own farm was torn down in 1980 – but it’s not too late to see the ones left!
Round barn tours are popular and a tour booklet of the round barns of Vernon County can be had from the Chamber of Commerce in Viroqua. Containing a map with directions, the self-guided tour will take you on a 100 mile-long driving loop, starting and ending in Viroqua, with over a dozen, historic round barns in between.
Another resource, the Wisconsin Round Barns List, compiles a list of the existing (and even some of the now gone) round barns of Wisconsin. The list is separated by county and was updated as recently as December of 2014.
If you do decide to tour the round barns of Vernon County, please remember that they are all on private property, so be sure to ask permission if you want to see one up close.