Jacqueline Jackson still tends a herd of cows but nowadays they’re figurines on her mantle.
Raised on the Dougan Guernsey Dairy Farm near Beloit, Wis., in the 1930s and 40s, Jackie decided at age 14 to chronicle her family’s business. In the decades since, she’s published more than a dozen books, had several plays and musicals produced, and has written a poem a week for Illinois Times the past seven years. At long last, The Round Barn: A Biography of an American Farm will be released this month. See www.roundbarnstories.com for details.
Her previous books, Stories from the Round Barn (1997) and More Stories from the Round Barn (2002), were extracted from this larger work – much larger. There’s no irony to the term magnum opus when the first volume of three of the complete Round Barn series clocks in at 550 pages. Readers will find many of the stories have been rewritten or added to, with new stories, accounts, histories, biographies, photos and letters included. Jackson interviewed her family members as well as more than 200 other people to track down memories of dairy farming. The book is likely to be filed under agricultural history but it is also a warm and personal memoir of an era when integrity, caring and principles were put before profit.
“She’s been working on the big book as long as I’ve known her,” said Kevin Brown, a member of the unnamed group of writers that meets weekly with Jackie. “A few years ago we had a Come As You Might Have Been party and she showed up wearing rubber boots and an old jacket with plastic tubing hanging out of the pocket – tubing for the artificial insemination of cows. She’d cheerfully go into vivid detail but not everyone is as passionate as Jackie is about quality bull semen,” he laughed.
Pat Martin, author of the poetry collection Needles of Light, is another of Jackson’s friends and recalls “... her reading from the book as portions were completed and telling parts of the stories that were not included in writing. Some of them were hilarious. Some were tragically funny, like the woman being caught in a flood-stage creek in her fur coat. She did, of course, get rescued.” Pat also pointed out that Jackie only allowed her home to be on last year’s Enos Park house tour when she was persuaded that it was a good example of a working artist’s residence. “Manuscripts, always manuscripts everywhere. At the open house last October, parts of it were scattered but behind ropes so visitors could see it in process.”
Collecting material for the books over seven decades had dividends that Jackson didn’t expect. “While others often visit aging parents out of a sense of duty, for me it was an exciting adventure.” She was happy to make the four-hour drive to just north of Rockford and always eager to tape oral histories, which she then spun into the stories. Each trip was a chance to discover new pieces for the puzzle. “Sometimes I’d learn things and not find out how they fit together until much later.”
One such example in The Round Barn is the fact that corn curls were invented in the Dougan family’s barn, not as a snack food but as rabbit feed. “It was many years later when someone told me that backyard rabbit breeding became popular during The Great Depression because it was a source of meat. They needed something cheap to feed the rabbits.” Stray facts suddenly fell together into a pattern, a bit of American history.
Will general audiences relate to all the technical side of dairy farming? Yes, says Jackson. “It’s fascinating material, engagingly written – which most tech stuff is not – and it has stories and commentary interspersed. It’s the personal material that will draw readers in.” She noted that cows and milk are very much in the current news, especially as small dairy farms fight for their survival against huge factory farms that pump cows with hormones and antibiotics.
Pat Martin also noted “Jackie’s phenomenal memory and indefatigable interviewing and research activities.” Jackson’s Round Barn projects led directly to her teaching “Writing a Woman’s Life” and later “Writing from Family Materials” at UIS. She was a founding faculty member at Sangamon State, now the University Illinois Springfield, and is currently a professor emerita.
As for the round barn itself? “It’s still standing, but in bad shape; the roof is like lace. It will probably be torn down soon. It’s visible from I-90,” Jackson reports.
She will be signing copies of her book on Saturday, Oct. 22, from 4 to 7 p.m. at Trout Lily Cafe, 218 South Sixth St. She’ll speak briefly around 6 p.m.
Lola Lucas is author of At Home in the Park: Loving a Neighborhood Back to Life about Springfield in general and Enos Park in particular.