The book is called "The Round Barn: Biography of an American Farm." As one reviewer wrote, reading it "is like sitting on the porch of an early 20th century dairy farm and watching an era in American history pass right before your eyes."
The Round Barn books —there are three of them now—are the creations of Jackie Dougan Jackson, a novelist, poet, professor, mentor to generations of writers, and one of the best-loved residents in my hometown of Springfield, IL.
She lives in a big, old home in Springfield which, legend has it, was once visited by another master storyteller, Abraham Lincoln.
Loretta and I are lucky to count Jackie as a dear friend of many years. She is a kind, creative soul who never fails to reach out to help others. At the age of 89, she is still filled with energy, empathy and curiosity about nearly everything.
The Round Barn books keep a promise that Jackie made to her grandfather W.J. Dougan when she was just 15 years old. She vowed then that one day she would write a history of the dairy farm that W.J. had founded in 1906, the farm on which three generations of Jackie's family lived and worked.
Jackie Jackson throws open the Round Barn doors at the Dougan family farm to tell us an American story. She gives us a rich history of farm life at the mercy of the forces of science and the market but grounded in rock-solid Midwestern values.
Some of those values were painted onto the silo of the family's round barn. W.J. titled the list "Aims for the Farm." They were: "#1. Good Crops; #2. Proper Storage; #3. Profitable Live Stock; #4. A Stable Market" —and most important of all—"#5. Life as Well as a Living."
W.J. Dougan was a deeply spiritual man and a hard worker. He struggled for years to put himself through college and became a Methodist minister, but encroaching deafness forced him to give up the religious life he loved.
In 1906, he bought a dairy farm near Beloit , WI .
The Round Barn was built in 1911. W.J. chose the unusual shape because he believed that a barn braced on a central concrete pillar was cheaper to build, more efficient for a dairy operation, and less likely to blow away in a tornado. The Round Barn quickly became a county landmark.
W.J. marketed himself as "the Babies Milk Man," and he succeeded through hard work, dedication to his customers and community, and an unusual talent for spotting and adopting cutting-edge advances in agriculture. In 1925, he was named a "Master Farmer" by a prestigious agricultural organization, one of only 23 Midwestern farmers so honored.
Even so, the Great Depression, which destroyed so many family farms and businesses, nearly wiped out the Dougan Guernsey Dairy Farm. In 1930, bankruptcy papers were drawn up but never filed.
Jackie was born in 1928, the year before the Great Depression, one of four children of W.J.'s son Ronald and Ronald's wife, Vera.
Jackie was a natural born writer, a prodigy. When she was 8 she wrote a short story that took first prize in a Beloit citywide contest. Her first novel was serialized in the Galesburg Post in Illinois when she was 10.
She majored in classics at Beloit College , married, and then moved with her new husband to Ann Arbor, where they both earned master's degrees.
The couple had four daughters. Jackie would go on to earn a doctorate in Latin from the University of Wisconsin .
She was teaching writing at Kent State University in Ohio in 1967 when her father suffered a heart attack. Jackie went home and sat at his hospital bedside for weeks as he recounted stories of life on the family farm.
Back in Ohio after her father's recover), Jackie became aware of a deep longing within her to reconnect with her rural beginnings. As she described it in one of her Round Barn books:
There has been another clock within her. She didn't set it nor place it there. It's been geared not to hours but to cycles; the daily precession of milking and bottling, feeding and cleaning the yearly procession of planting, cultivating, harvesting. It's been set to sun, moon, health, cold, wet dry. But now if there's a heavy spring freeze, she puts on a coat without sensing the loss of crops that might result from too-late planting. If the sky lowers black, she takes an umbrella without feeling the sway of the hay wagon racing to reach the barn before the cloudburst. Her dailiness is not this class, that lecture, the next trip to the stacks...It was the ground she'd stood on, the air she'd breathed. She had no special moment, no epiphany to explain the realization of loss that came over her. She only knows that something elemental is gone and has been gone for some time. That it's probably irretrievable, unless she changes the path she's treading.
So that is what she did. Jackie Jackson changed her life's path. She moved to Springfield , IL , and accepted a position teaching literature and writing at an innovative university that was just opening, Sangamon State University , now the University of Illinois at Springfield .
For years, she had been collecting stories and recollections about the Round Barn, her family, the dairy's customers, and the townspeople. Her trove of tales included her own notebooks, stretching back to when she was 8, the stories her father had told her from his hospital bed, letters and notes left by her grandfather, and much more.
She became a sort of detective, finding more letters tucked into framed pictures, stuck to the attic floor in the old family home all sorts of unexpected places. Each letter or scrap of paper became a piece of the family puzzle.
In 1976, she began to fashion the notes and letters into the first Round Barn book. The book published this month, "The Round Barn: Biography of an American Farm' is the fulfillment of her promise to her grandfather, her magnum opus, a detailed and loving portrait of a way of life that no longer exists.
The Dougan Guernsey Dairy Farm ceased operating in 1967, just as agribusiness and large corporate farms were beginning to redefine American farming.
In 1979, the Round Barn was added to the National Registry of Historic Places.
By 2012, the dilapidated old structure had become a safety hazard, and it was torn down, but thanks to Jackie Jackson's beautifully detailed biography of her family's farm and the people who lived and worked there, generations from now readers will still be able to visit the magical world of the Round Barn.
As this Thanksgiving Day, this American harvest festival, approaches, I am thankful for the Round Barn books that capture a bygone day of American farming like holograms, and Loretta and I are grateful to our friend Jackie for giving the world such a gift.