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Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 07:17 am

Putting the story in history

The biography of an American farm where there’s “life as well as a living”


The big house where Jackie Jackson’s grandparents and the “hired men” lived on the Dougan Guernsey Dairy Farm near Beloit, Wis., and the now-famous round barn.

The Beloit University Press has just released Volume One of Springfield writer Jacqueline Dougan Jackson’s planned three-volume opus The Round Barn – The Biography of an American Farm. It is the first step toward realizing Jackson’s original vision of the work after Northwestern University press excerpted from this “big book” Stories from the Round Barn in 1997 and More Stories from the Round Barn in 2002.

In its scope, size and ambition, The Round Barn is a cousin to Robert Burton’s 17th century multi-volume Anatomy of Melancholy. Both seek so much to explicate completely and bring to life fully every aspect of their subject that both authors have included in their front matters pictographic representations of their book’s organizing principles. Many readers will find that graphic invaluable.

But don’t let the enormity and the, at first, seemingly complex organization of the book fool you. This is no dry tome. Jackson’s accessible writing style, her keen sense of character and her unwavering sense of narrative are comfortably akin to Sherwood Anderson’s Winseburg, Ohio or Garrison Keillor’s tales of Lake Woebegon. The sequences of tiny vignettes (and slightly longer accounts, letters and even school assignments) that make up The Round Barn layer one upon the other until, not quite by accident, they form a loose but satisfying story arc.

Jackie Jackson as a 12-year-old being ridden by the family goat, “Sugar Puss.”
Volume One contains the first three of eight books that recount the rise and fall of a Wisconsin farm – and its associated milk and hybrid corn businesses – located near Beloit from 1906 to 1972. Though the farm, by design, gave “life as well as a living” to W.J. Dougan, his children and his grandchildren (including Jackson) for 66 years – and though the stories, accounts and histories are most often centered on the Dougans – this book should not be construed as some quaint memoir.

The work is, as its subtitle proclaims, the biography of an American farm. Just as the biography of any worthy person reveals its subject to be a singularly worthy individual and an admirable representation of his or her era, so too does the Dougan farm at once distinguish itself and speak for the larger rich, literate and pragmatic culture of the rural Midwest of the early 20th century.

Readers who rightly delighted in Stories and More Stories will be pleased to find even more narratives in Volume One. They will also be enriched with histories on such topics as animal husbandry, cures for the bloat in cows, early government subsidies for milk prices and an explanation of how acidophilous milk makes for sweeter smelling flatulence.

Jackson has been blessed with an abundance of letters, photos, oral histories (which she herself gathered), accounting ledgers, and her family’s farming references, including vintage copies of Hoard’s Dairyman, the national dairy farm magazine. She makes a thorough – but never overwhelming – use of these source materials, because Jackson knows that the better part of history is story. She is first and last a storyteller, imparting truth and entertainment in equally palatable dollops. The Dougan farm, and by extension the American family farm, could have a no more deft and devoted chronicler than she.

Rodd Whelpley is a former writing student of Jacqueline Dougan Jackson and the author of Capital Murder, a mystery set in Springfield, Ill. 

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