Woman Preserves America’s Farming Heritage Through Figi’s Collectible Barns

70th Anniversary Figi's Barn Dance (2014). Design by Roxanne Tomkowiak.

Barn Collection on Display at Upham Mansion

Marshfield, WI (OnFocus) America’s diverse farming culture is preserved through a special collection of Figi’s ceramic barns, currently on display at Upham Mansion.

The special June exhibit celebrates Dairy Month by featuring the 27 collectible barns released each year from 1992 until 2018 before Figi’s closure in early 2019. Advertised as a trinket or candy dish, the unique ceramic barns served as containers for Figi’s signature Kave Kure spreadable cheese.

Roxanne Tomkowiak of Marshfield designed 22 of the barns, some of which were based on real ones she photographed at places like Old World Wisconsin in Eagle, WI and Door County. Others she based on historic barns found in books, or on styles of architecture found in other parts of the country.

“I learned a lot about barns,” she noted.

The first two barns were designed by former Figi’s VP, Louise O’Donnel. Early barns in the series were hand-painted and featured green roofs that were thought to stick out better in the catalogue. Later, the barn designs would grow more realistic with the use of decals and fine details.

Early in her 28-year career at Figi’s, Tomkowiak was tasked with laying out the catalogue but later transitioned into artwork and gift design.

“I did a lot of salt and pepper shakers,” she said.

After taking over the barn project in 1994, Tomkowiak decided to recreate the World’s Largest Round Barn. Before computers, everything was hand-drawn and traced on a light table. The final pages of measurements and designs were then submitted to the manufacturer.

In 2009, she returned to the concept with a more realistic, lighted version of the round barn, this time designing it on a computer.

Through her long history with the collection, Tomkowiak represented many different styles of barns found in the Midwest, including an octagon barn near La Valle (1999), a crib barn from Iowa (2001), a Door County barn featuring the nogging building style (2005), a local HWY 10 barn with cow decals (2012), and a Civil War horse barn (2013) based on pictures from Michigan.

Several of the collectibles were based on Pennsylvania Dutch barns. One released in 1995 was the first to feature a silo and was based on barns built in the 1850s. The flower star was typical of rural barn designs, thought to be emblems of land ownership or purely decorative. A painted star, or Schtanna, was thought to bring good luck and protection and was most common in the Shenandoah Valley.

Though Tomkowiak never grew up on a farm herself, her interest in barns grew with the project. “I really started to pay attention to barns when we would drive around,” she said. “It still catches my attention, the style of the barns.”

A fictional “Sunny View Acres” drive-through barn was released in 2000, a style owned by Tomkowiak’s great-grandfather. The hopps barn (2010) recalls the style of Hilltop Pub & Grill in Stevens Point and was a nod to the historic Marshfield brewery, which Figi’s ran for two years after purchasing the business in 1965.

As the barns grew more detailed, those details revealed something of the story and character of a particular farming culture. Arches over the windows of the 2007 Pennsylvania Dutch barn and diamond-shaped openings held a special purpose.

“The painted arches stopped witches from getting into the barn,” Tomkowiak explained. “The diamonds were for air movement.”

A “circus barn” released in 2003 shows a poster advertising a traveling show. “The farm might get free ticket if they let circus slap a poster on the barn,” she said.

Other collectible barns recall farm life in general, such as the “threshing barn,” released in 2014, which also marked Figi’s 75th anniversary. The threshing barn was based on one at the Old World Wisconsin museum and is one of her favorites.

The barns can be viewed at the Upham Mansion on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 1:30-4 p.m. or by appointment. Next, they will head next to the Marshfield museum in the basement of the 2nd Street Community Center for permanent display.

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