Silos and the Wisconsin Idea

Silos are such a familiar sight around Wisconsin we hardly give them a thought, much less appreciate the drama of their beginnings. Clara tells about her father Emil’s farm that “two silos were added on the [south] side of the barn in 1916” (Homestead, 35). By that year much of the silo controversy from the previous century was past, and silos were a proven contributor to successful dairying.

The fact that Emil built two silos (above) is a sign he wasn’t hesitating about this improvement in his dairy farming. Wisconsin, however, had taken about 30 years to achieve this acceptance of the silo. By 1880 a few farmers had begun experimenting with silos and filling them with high moisture hay. In the process it was learned that gases could accumulate in corners of square silos and explode – not a nice surprise! – so round silos became the standard.

Wood silos like Emil’s – ideally redwood or cedar to withstand the acids in the fermentation process – were typical of the day. Vertical 2″x6″ tongue-and-groove wood staves were held in place by steel hoops that were adjustable. These silos were inexpensive, could be erected in a day or two, and might last for years if made of redwood (Jerry Apps, Barns of Wisconsin). I understand these wood silos were vulnerable to windstorms if empty, but I’ll bet Emil’s location snug to his barn served as a protection as well as a convenience.

In the silo’s early years around 1880, farmers were unconvinced of the merits of “ensilage,” this fermented hay. Some insisted it would cause cows to lose their teeth, eat out their stomachs, and cause trouble calving. One farmer even claimed silage caused his cows to stagger about drunk! 

A key factor in getting the farmers on board was a new development in the state in 1885: Wisconsin Farmers’ Institutes. One and two-day events throughout the state put new and tested ideas from the University of Wisconsin in Madison into hands of farmers willing to give them a try – plus promoted a healthy exchange. At the 1887 Institutes, some farmers testified that silos had helped them survive the drought of 1886 – and silo construction was given a real boost. These Institutes became a very useful early expression of the progressive and renowned Wisconsin Idea, summarized by one writer as “the university’s service to the state” (article by Jack Stark in 1995-1996 Wisconsin Blue Book).

I have wondered if Emil or his father Elias ever attended one or more these Institutes. If Emil was a progressive farmer as his children Clara and Sid insist, I think he may have. From the 1891 Wisconsin Blue Book I did learn that Farmers’ Institutes were held in nearby Blair and Osseo in December 1891. And in the same June 1904 Whitehall Times and Blair Banner that Emil announced a barn dance, the state superintendent of the Farmers’ Institutes encouraged interested farmers to talk to their neighbors and request an Institute for their community.

In 1904, the year Emil and Gina gave that barn dance in their three-year-old barn, a census indicated just 716 silos on Wisconsin farms. By 1915, the year before Emil built his two silos, the number had mushroomed to nearly 56,000 tower silos in the state. Half were wooden construction like his (Apps, 141). I understand from Lesley that one of Emil’s silos still stands somewhere in the Whitehall area. It would be fun to see it again.

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