Risk and Ruin at the Starke Round Barn, Red Cloud, Webster County, Nebraska
A Drive Through The Heartland, Part Three
(Continued from the blog post, “A Drive Through The Heartland 2.”)
Largest of It’s Type in the World
For their time, for any time, many Midwest barns were engineering marvels, especially the large round barns. Round barns do not have any European antecedents like other barn designs. They are entirely an American creation and an important part of American architectural history. Round barns are also the most rare. Less than one fifth of one percent of all barns in the US are round barns.
One of the most impressive designs and largest in the world of its type, the Starke Round Barn near Red Cloud, Nebraska holds together without any nails or pegs, entirely by the weight and balance of the building and the beams of the structure. However, the design of the Starke Round Barn is not the only interesting aspect of its history.
Conrad Starke and Sons Amassed a Fortune in Milwaukee
The Starke Round Barn story rises and falls with the fortunes of the owners. The builders of the Starke Round Barn, the four Starke brothers, came to Nebraska from Milwaukee, Wisconsin just after the turn of the century. The Starke family had been in engineering and building for many years, constructing ships on the Great Lakes.
Starke family members at the time were known to have attended elite Milwaukee society parties, having amassed a fortune and political influence through various enterprises. They owned shipping companies, tugboat lines and other businesses on Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes.
The Starke Round Barn Historic Site explains that around 1880, Conrad Starke, Sr. and his wife Veronica purchased 400 acres of land in Webster County, Nebraska in the Republican River Valley near what is now Red Cloud. Veronica’s brothers, Gottleib and John Christian Rasser had homesteaded in the area in 1870 after serving in the Civil War.
Conrad Jr., Ernest, Bill and Christopher Starke Build An Engineering Marvel Round Barn
Still living in Milwaukee in 1902, Conrad Starke Sr., the mastermind behind the greatest portion of the Starke fortune, gave his four sons Conrad, Ernest, Bill and Christopher funding and supplies to go to Nebraska to live at the Starke property near Red Cloud. In addition to other building materials for a barn and other projects, the Starkes shipped gigantic 12” by 12” timbers from the Great Lakes to Nebraska. The Starke Round Barn took the Starke brothers two years to complete.
As the Starke brothers erected the barn, they did not use nails or pegs like other barns of the time. The citation for the Starke Round Barn in the National Register of Historic Places describes the construction and how the building holds together through tension, weight and balance:
The Starke barn is not polyhedronal, a type more common in Nebraska, but a true round barn. It is three stories tall and 130 feet in diameter. The central silo, of brick and mortar construction, is 28 feet in diameter and 65 feet in height, with a total volume of 40,000 cubic feet. The roof is a gable and of low pitch, required by the barn’s great circumference. The construction method is a combination of balloon framing and heavy timber supports. The entire three level vertical and horizontal support frame is of massive 12 X 12 timbers, which are held together by compressive and balancing tensile forces rather than by nails or pegs, which would be useless as fasteners under the thousands of tons the building was designed to hold. The barn was originally covered with horizontal siding. In the early 1960s, the original wood siding was covered over with corrugated iron sheets… With the exception of this minor alteration, the barn still stands today virtually unaltered since its construction.
With the full three stories, the barn contains over 40,000 square feet of floor space. Other large round barns may have one level that is larger in diameter, but other levels are smaller. This is the case with the Central Wisconsin State Fairgrounds Round Barn in Marshfield, Wisconsin. The Wisconsin State Fairgrounds Barn is considered the largest round barn in the US.
The Thriving Starke Dairy Farm
The Starke Round Barn with extensive room on all three floors, originally supported a large dairy operation. The third top level, or loft, provided hay storage. The middle second floor, accessed directly from the front of the barn with a triple-wide driveway and doors, housed farm machinery, wagons, buggies and other conveyances, tools and equipment. The bottom ground floor stabled horses in one section and cows in another. Nearly half of the bottom floor extended into the hillside, while the remaining majority of the ground floor had windows around it. The milking area was on the window side of the basement floor. There were also windows on the main second floor originally, but many of these were covered in 1960 when the metal siding was installed.
The Starke brothers enjoyed a successful farm for nearly 20 years. However, they also overspent on farm supplies, luxuries and lavish parties. Novelist Willa Cather may have attended one of the parties, speculated the current owner of the Starke Round Barn, Liz Rasser, a relative of the Starkes, in Nebraska Rural Living. Red Cloud was the childhood home of Willa Cather. In one of Willa Cather’s short stories, “The Bohemian Girl,” the main character attended a barn dance to celebrate the completion of the largest barn in the state. Willa Cather’s father, Charles, who owned a real estate, insurance and loan office in Red Cloud, signed some of the surviving historic papers of the Starke barn. The Starke brothers were popular in the area and known by most.
“Everyone wanted to come out and work for them because they would just go sit under a shade tree and drink out of a cider jug all afternoon,” Rasser said. In 1915, the Starke brothers started the dairy operation, with approximately 75 stanchions for milking on the lower level of the barn. In 1922, the Starkes had Nebraska’s best producing cow for milk and butter.
The barn has made it through two tornadoes and been missed by nearby fires, but tragedy struck the Starke brothers when their dairy herd contracted tuberculosis and nearly all died in the early 1920s. Debts had been mounting. Two of the Starke brothers left town and both died of heart attacks. The remaining two brothers moved to town, but lost the barn and the whole farm to a foreclosure sale on the steps of the Webster County Courthouse in 1929.
Walter and Will Rasser, nephews of Conrad Sr. and Veronica Rasser Starke, purchased the Starke farm in fateful 1929. Percy, Liz and son Cal, the current owners, are descendent from the original Rassers who bought the farm. The Rassers today give tours of the barn and hold special events and historical activities on the grounds.
The Rassers are actively raising funds to further restore the barn. Through various grants they were able to replace the gigantic roof and more maintenance is needed. To donate or get involved with the Starke Round Barn go to The Starke Round Barn Historic Site.
(Continued in the next blog post in the series, “Heartland 4 – Nebraska – Little Ruins on the Prairie.”)