Saving on paper a town’s vanishing barns

Inspired by a fire, rural Port resident Mike Didier has made it his mission to document the area’s aging barns before they disappear from the countryside

THE RESTORED BARN owned by the Buser family on Highway KK is an exception to the rule, said Mike Didier, who noted that many of the Town of Port Washington’s traditional barns are deteriorating and disappearing from the landscape. He’s compiling a book of the barns, recording their history before they are forgotten. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

The classic red barn is an American icon, one that is rapidly disappearing in Ozaukee County. But Mike Didier is working to make sure it’s not forgotten.

Didier, a town supervisor whose family goes back generations in the county, is compiling a book of pre-1960s barns in the Town of Port Washington in the hopes these icons of bucolic life that once dotted the countryside won’t be forgotten.

The idea of documenting the town’s barns came to him while he watched the Belzer family barn on Northwoods Road burn in 2016.

“That was a traditional, old barn glowing in the night. It was 3 in the morning and I thought, ‘I’ve either witnessed or helped tear down at least seven barns,’” said Didier, who is a member of the Port Washington Fire Department. 

“I remember thinking that we were at the point that pretty soon there wouldn’t be any left. And once they’re gone, in 10 or 15 years no one will know they existed.

“This isn’t something that’s unique to Port. With the end of traditional small farms, these barns are becoming obsolete everywhere.”

It’s a vicious cycle, Didier said, that starts when small farms leave or farmers build larger pole barns.

“All the old-timers tell me that when the cattle leave, the barn goes to hell,” he said. “The freeze-thaw cycle takes hold and destroys it.

“Then the roof goes bad and it really goes to hell. At some point, it becomes a liability and they get pushed in or they just collapse.”

It’s not practical for larger farms to build traditional barns, Didier said. Instead, pole barns or other metal buildings are constructed.

Three barns on his family’s property have been lost through the years, Didier said. Two burned in the 1970s and the other burned 10 to 15 years ago. 

There were a lot of barn fires in the 1970s, Didier recalled, many believed to have been started by arson. 

“They tell me at night if you were driving around and the farmers didn’t know you, someone was following you,” he said. “After milking, everyone was patrolling the town.”

Didier started recording the town’s barns simply by driving around and taking pictures from the street of every pre-1960s barn he could find in the town “just to have a reference of it,” he said.

He decided to define a barn as a pre-1960s structure because these are the classic, large, gambrel-roofed buildings that housed animals for decades.

“There are a lot of big sheds out there,” he said.   

He found 37 barns remaining in the township — a number that’s declining quickly. For example, when Ozaukee Press photographer Sam Arendt went to snap a shot of Didier in front of a barn on Lake Drive this past weekend, they found the structure had collapsed.

And the former Karrels barn at 820 Lake Dr., which was damaged in a fire this spring, will be coming down soon as it is replaced by a creamery.

Didier’s devoted a page in his book for each barn, printing the photo on it and then approaching the families who live there for an old photo or information about the structure.

“Everybody’s been good about giving me stuff,” he said. “A lot of these were families, generational farms. I’d find myself talking to somebody who’s in their 70s and grew up there. 

“They always have interesting stories.”

Even if all they remember is the year the barn was built — something most families recall, Didier said — that’s a story in and of itself.

“If you take that to your grave, no body’s going to know it later,” he said.

And because these were family farms, there are usually family members still in the area, Didier noted.

“A lot of them stay in the family for generations,” he said.

He pointed to a page with a photo of the Karrels barn at 1125 Dixie Rd., with a narrative supplied by Dan Karrels. 

“To the best of my knowledge, that barn was built sometime before 1925 except for the addition that my brother Rollin added about 1955,” Karrels wrote. 

“When growing up on that farm, there was an occasional mention of ‘the old barn burned down.’ Within the past few years I asked my sister who is 92 if she remembered the old barn and she said the fire was before her time and she heard the fire was probably started by a bum sleeping and smoking in the barn.”

Karrels noted the farm was purchased by his father Charles in 1918, when he was 22, from the estate of his father Mathias, who began buying land from his father John in 1881. His great-grandfather John Karrels, who arrived from Luxembourg in 1847, had started buying land in the area in 1854, he noted.

It’s surprising, Didier said, how many families have aerial photos of their barns and farms from the 1950s and ‘60s.

“Back then, an aerial shot of your home was pretty cool,” Didier said.

He’s even gotten pictures of barns that have burned, noting that often the family has photos of the burning building.

And while many barns in the town aren’t in the best condition, there are exceptions. Didier said a barn owned by the Buser family at 4590 Hwy. KK has been renovated.

“That’s unique. Money was spent saving it,” he said. “It’s been strategically, meticulously done. That barn looks like it’ll be there another 100 years.”

A 2007 Ozaukee Press story on the renovation noted that the Buser family moved to the farm in 1955, raising livestock and children and growing memories.

The farming days were long over when the barn began to deteriorate and the family decided to raze it. But no one had the heart.

“We had decided we had to put it down, like an old dog. We had agreed it was the best,” Mary Buser told Ozaukee Press. “When it came time to let go of it, we just couldn’t bear it.”

The family hired a company to restore the barn as a tribute to their heritage at a cost that was not much more than razing it would have been, she said.

Didier said he doesn’t know how long it will take him to complete his book, but he’s not worried.

“I’m doing it for myself, not for anyone else,” said Didier, who’s the unofficial town historian.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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