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The Largest Barn in Kansas

by Ella Marie Hayes
Saratoga, Wyo.
Photos by Noel V. Hayes Jr.

When traveling across Kansas, we always expect to see elevators and cathedral spires reaching into the sky above the horizon, higher than the surrounding landscape, but on a recent trip we found another rural Kansas “skyscraper” when we visited the Prairie Museum in Colby. What makes the Cooper Barn, said to be the largest barn in Kansas, even more fascinating is the fact that it was moved in one piece to the Prairie Museum complex in 1992.

The massive building was built in 1936 and was once part of the Foster Farms operation, headquartered 16 miles near Breton northeast of Colby in Thomas County, Kansas. The structure was built by men in the area using lumber from the Foster Lumber Company. Diagonal undersheeting was used for increased support and insulation. House siding was used on the outside rather than regular barn siding because it was more attractive and served as good advertising for Foster Lumber Company.

Benjamin Butler Foster, owner of the vast lumber yard empire based in Kansas City, Mo., had begun buying land in western Kansas and eastern Colorado between 1908 and 1938 during the Dust Bowl period. But Ben Foster was a man of vision and faith and after buying up these large tracts of land, he introduced improved farming methods seeking to hold the soil in place.

The large cattle show barn is 66 feet wide, 114 feet long, and 48 feet high. For years the barn housed the Foster Farm’s prize-winning registered Hereford cattle. The development of a nationally known herd of registered Horned Hereford cattle is probably what brought the most fame to Foster Farms. At one time the herd consisted of 731 animals.

Ellsworth D. Mustoe, nicknamed “Doc” managed the huge Foster Farms enterprise from 1922 to 1965. His biggest area of responsibility was the operation of the Thomas County farms and production and showing of the registered cattle and horses. Corn, oats, barley, alfalfa and forage sorghums were also grown at Foster Farms. Most of these crops were fed to the livestock produced by the Farms.

Foster Farms was also famous for its horses and mules. This business began in 1931, and they maintained an average of 350-400 head of these animals until the early 1940s. Horsepower was used on the Farms until the late 1930s or early 1940s when a majority of the horses were replaced by gas-fired tractors.

Clydesdale horses were bred under the direction of Doc with the help of a horse foreman. The Clydesdale bloodlines were kept straight as well as color and markings. They showed the Clydesdales at the 1938 American Royal where the Budweiser Company bought a six horse hitch for use in their stables.

The Foster Farms was the center of several activities. F.W. Bell, a member of the Animal Husbandry Department at Kansas State College, interested Doc in establishing a training school for livestock judging and selection in 1921. The Junior Judging School eventually became an annual event and trained boys and girls to appreciated and recognize the finer qualities of good livestock. It was held at the Farms for over 25 years.

After the dispersal of the registered cattle, the Farms became involved with a commercial herd of cattle. Following Ben Foster’s death in 1961, Foster Farms was sold in 1965 to a partnership that became known as O.C.K. Farms. The new owners included: George, Charles, Wilf, John and Gene Ostmeyer; Willard and Gary Cooper; Leo and Les Keller and Bridge Kruse. The partnership dissolved in 1969 and Willard Cooper retained that part of the farm on which the barn stood.

In the 1970s, Colby Community College used the barn for the horse production program. After Willard’s death in 1980, the barn became the property of Gary Cooper and Mary Jo Cooper Pawlus. In February 1991, Lloyd White and Max George, both of Colby, approached the Thomas County Historical Society Board of Directors with their idea of moving the barn to the museum. They reported that Cooper and Pawlus had offered to donate the Cooper Barn, formerly of Foster Farms, to the Society, if it could be moved.

The Executive Board authorized a fund-raising campaign, and by May, donations of at least $70,000 were pledged, and with $50,000 of that already in hand, the Board accepted the donation of the Barn and gave approval to proceed with plans to move. In August, the Board signed the contract with the Cooper family to formally accept the gift of the barn which then became the property of the Thomas County Historical Society on Sept. 23, 1991, and plans were made to move the barn by the end of the year.

A huge barn dance, barbecue , and related activities brought a crowd of 3,000 people to the event from all over northwest Kansas and netted close to $15,000 bringing the total funds to $90,000 for moving and restoring the barn. However, much work was yet to be completed including pouring the foundation and footings, obtaining permission to travel on highways, railroad crossings, navigate past power lines, and trespass across fields.

Gary Cooper extended the gift contract until May 31, 1992. By May 6, work was in progress to place supports under the barn, raise the barn with hydraulic lifts to insert huge I-beams and eight-wheel dollies in place.

On May 12 the move began, but on the night of May 13 the rains came. It had not rained in Thomas County three months but the barn move brought rain – an inch or more all along the route. Two Cat 930 wheel loader winches in tandem with a big winch truck, and the four-wheel drive tractor truck finally finished the muddy trip onto the museum grounds on May 15. On May 18, after the dollies had been removed, the barn was lowered onto the foundation at its new home ready for finishing touches.

The vast space of the barn lent itself to hold the story of agriculture on the High Plains, titled, “Prairie Grasses to Golden Grains: Agriculture in Northwest Kansas, 1870s to 1990s.” The 7,000 square foot exhibit opened in 1993, and the barn is also used for special events and barn dances.

The Cooper Barn joins a museum complex reflecting the lives of the settlers that first arrived in Thomas County in 1879. The outdoor exhibit includes a 1930s Farmstead, one-room school, church, sod home and ten-acre natural Western prairie habitat, while the main museum building is filled with extensive collections and county archives.

The people of Colby, Kansas, invite travelers to visit The Prairie Museum of Art & History, 1905 South Franklin. Open 9-5, M-F; 1-5, Sat & Sun.(Closed Mondays, from Nov. 1-March 31.)

For more information go to the Website: prairiemuseum.org; E-mail prairie@st-tel.net; or phone 785-460-4590.


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