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.
Webmaster: So, Jackie, have you always written?
Jackie: My parents were readers and read to us, and from my earliest days I knew books and words were special. It only followed that to write down words, to write books, was as special a thing as one could do.
Webmaster: So when did you write your first book?
Jackie: In third grade; it was a collection of small stories about rabbits and fairies. My fourth-grade book featured a pair of anthropomorphic dogs doing things I wanted to do. In one chapter Bumpy and Billy Bones built a raft and floated down a river--we had just been forbidden to launch an old barn door out into our raging, flooded creek.
Webmaster: But The Cloudlanders?
Jackie: That was the fifth grade book. It was a continuous story, my hero and heroine managed to get up to lands in the clouds, and jumped from adventure to adventure. It was heavily influenced by the Oz books. A friend of my parents who edited The Galesburg (Illinois) Post, a weekly newspaper, saw the story in progress, and started to print it. After a while the printed word caught up to my written copy, and I sweated under a deadline. It was too much pressure; I brought my kids down from the clouds in a hurry. But they'd been up there four and a half months!
Webmaster: I'm ready for your sixth grade book.
Jackie: There wasn't one. About then in school they began to teach us how to write and I found I was doing it all wrong. I got bogged down in outlines and grammar, and the joy of creation vanished. Granted, they were teaching us how to write essays and book reports, no schools were thinking about creative writing, but I didn't differentiate. I still wanted to write books, but didn't write again till college. There I found creative writing classes and grabbed them in a greedy embrace. I wish now I'd written, during all those earlier years, about activities and people on the farm, kept a journal. I regret all the material I lost, especially that I didn't get down the stories of my grandparents, and my great aunts and uncles.
Webmaster: But still, you managed to gather a whole lot of material. Look at the Barn books.
Jackie: My dad was always telling stories. When I was fourteen I filled a small notebook with the ones we heard oftenest -the time he had to plane off his name from the country school's outhouse door; how many freckles Daisy had on her udder--she was the cow he milked morning and night while he envied the sparrows happily pecking on the barnyard horse apples; the time my grandfather saw a little boy milking onto his cold bare feet held over the bucket. The farmer with no legs who could climb a ladder. At fifteen or so I wrote Grampa a note -he was deaf - that I was going to write him a book, call it The Round Barn. I should have grabbed a pencil then and there, and taken down every story he knew. But I wasn't clear about what I wanted to write, or how to go about it, or the questions to ask. And at that age, you think everybody's going to live forever.
Webmaster: But you do have some grandfather stories, don't you?
Jackie: The milking-on-feet one he told often. Others I gleaned from his writings, and the ones about him I learned by asking--the family, farm workers, neighbors, the university, all over. Everybody had stories about Grampa, or "Daddy Dougan" as he was called.
Webmaster: And now they're all in the barn books?
Jackie: Yes, the first two books, Stories From The Round Barn, and More Stories From The Round Barn are excerpts from the parent book, The Round Barn. Volume I was just published and sponsored by the Beloit College Press. Volume II and III will be coming out over the next year or so.
Webmaster: How are the three volumes organized?
Jackie: They're organized geographically with Volume I concentrating heavily on the silo and barn and the milk house and milk route. Volume II and III will cover the general farm work as well as the hybrid seed corn business, alfalfa raising and artificial breeding – three industries that the farm was in from the very beginning. And mixed in with it all are the stories from the farm. The stories are the glue that hold it all together.
Webmaster: So – stories and historical factual information; it's all in what you have been calling “The Big Book”… The Round Barn?
Jackie: Yes, everything from the farm's sixty-five year span. It also contains loads of original photographs from our extensive archive. It's a rich, rich document.
Webmaster: Then it's finished?
Jackie: Well, Volume I is published now and Volume II and III are on the way - but it's a load I can keep mining for the rest of my life. It affected my teaching: even after I retired, I offered a course, "Writing from Family Materials," where students got down their own family stories, mined their own lodes. Their emigration and religious histories, medical histories, family documents, recipes, photo albums, clippings, interviews of all their relatives. Family skeletons tumbling out of closets. Whole families got in on the act and we'd have a big party at the end and meet everybody. I'm not currently teaching that class, but I'm still doing extended workshops. Lots of laughing and tears.
Webmaster: I guess we can let out the secret now. I first met you when I took that very class some years ago. In fact, I have every intention of coming to one of those workshops again, if you'll have me. I have a few more family skeletons to exhume and document.
Jackie: Well, the Barn books are my magnum opus, warts and all, really my love letter to the world. I hope the world will read them!