Over the Top

Minnesota man builds collection of barn cupolas

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Left: This hand-built stone centenarian is a proud survivor of time. Built in 1903, this stone shed is topped by three relics of another age. While most displays of farm collectibles are housed in sheds and buildings, Marv Grabau’s collection of nearly three dozen cupolas and ventilators are on proud display atop his house, barn and outbuildings. He’d like to add more cupolas to his collection, but faces a challenge: “I’d have to build another barn just to display them,” he says. “I’m basically running out of room, but I think I could squeeze in another five or six.”

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Marvin Grabau's horse has a wooden leg.

His cow has been shot 28 times and pierced by a lightning rod.

Marv likes them that way. He's rescued these critters and given them a home. "We've got a lot of horses, like the one behind the shop," he says. "A guy gave that to us. It blew off the barn and his wife hit it with the lawnmower. I had to carve a wooden leg to fix it up. I used some body putty and epoxy and painted it. It looks pretty fair right now. The cow is a weather vane with 28 bullet holes in it. It's on a lightning rod, not a vane."

These abused animals rise above the cupolas Marv collects. The habit, one might say, runs in his, uh, vanes. Most of the animals he rescues have been used as targets at some point in their tenure atop buildings, making the hunt for the most interesting tin ornaments a perpetual challenge. Cupolas, though, are not his only interest: He also collects and restores old caisson carts (used to haul ammunition), wheelbarrows, tricycles, coaster wagons, outhouses, hay stackers and a multitude of other devices.

Marv's cupola collection is on full display atop his barn, woodworking shop and other outbuildings at his fourth-generation farm, Ridgerunner Acres, near Wykoff, Minn. "We've gotten 35 cupolas in the past 11 months," he says. "I advertised in the paper, and it kind of took off from word of mouth." He specializes in those made of metal. Some were given to him; others were purchased at auctions for prices ranging from 50 cents to $100. "That's about the most I'll offer," he says, "and it depends on whether it's something I don't have or if it's something unusual."

By definition, a cupola is a small, non-mechanical, cylindrical roof vent designed to draw heat and moisture out of a barn. Some models included weather vanes with decorative ornaments. Others had lightning rods with decorative colored-glass balls. Today, the traditional barn cupola is largely a thing of the past. "With all the barns going down, they're disappearing," Marv says. "Someday, there's not going to be a lot of them around."

Marv's first memory of a cupola - one on a barn at his uncle's farm - was formed when he was a boy of 6. Just months later, it was gone. "I believe it was in 1953, right before a tornado took my uncle's barn down. I was looking up there and asking Dad questions about it, because it looked (through the eyes of a child) like a house on a house." Cupolas also figure into the kind of childhood adventures that turn a mother's hair gray. "When the hay mow was just about empty, the neighbor kids would go up the ladder and into the big barn," he recalls, "hand-over-hand down the hay track, and crawl up into the metal cupola to get pigeon eggs out of it."

When beginning a new hobby, Marv immediately begins schooling himself on age, condition, rarity, values and impact of restoration on values. Most of what he's learned about cupolas has come through word of mouth, because they're not exactly a hotbed of collector interest. "There are some in antique shops," he says. "Some people use them in their gardens, or put them on small buildings. I've done as much research as possible, but there's very little information out there. I've tried the library, and I have people look online for me because I don't have a computer. I'm sort of dead-ended now."

The metal cupola is sometimes confused with its cousin, the ventilator. The distinction between the two is rooted in size and appearance. "Ventilators are usually low-profile. Sometimes they turn with the wind, and they're not very decorative," Marv says. "Cupolas often have flared bottoms, but not always."

Wooden cupolas, he says, generally predate 1900. By 1910, most cupolas were made of metal, saving time and money in the production process. Later models were made of steel. "So far, I know of three brands," Marv says. "Ideal and Clay were manufactured in Iowa, and King was manufactured in Owatonna, Minn." Implement dealers often sold cupolas and ventilators; manufacturers varied by region.

Cupolas and ventilators were most commonly used in the Midwest and were rare in other parts of the country. "In ranch country, they have a lot fewer barns, just like in Wisconsin, you could hardly find a windmill," Marv says. "In Nebraska and South Dakota, there aren't many cupolas." Cupolas and ventilators are still used today, but beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, electric fans were incorporated into them.

Marv focuses on "half-scale" cupolas (sometimes referred to as 'queens'), those under 4 feet tall. Full-scale cupolas (or 'kings') range from 4 to 9 feet in height. "The ones I really like, although I like them all, are half-scale," he says. "I'm not as interested in the full-scale cupolas anymore. They're big, they're hard to move and hard to put up."

Many of the pieces in his collection have sentimental value. A King-brand cupola on one end of his woodworking shop once belonged to Marv's great-uncle. Another cupola (also one of his great-uncle's) is a piece of family history. "Years ago, it was on a hen house," Marv recalls. "When they were kids, three of my cousins crawled up on the hen house roof and etched their names in that cupola with a nail." Another of the cupolas once owned by his great-uncle is metal; a decorative grape cluster motif is embossed on its head.

Ventilators are closely related to Marv's cupola collection. He's worked on one that came from the nearby Forestville Township schoolhouse (where both Marv and his father went to school). "When we reshingled about 8 years ago, that was under one layer of wood and one layer of asphalt. It was probably put on during World War I, and it was still on the school when I was a kid."

Marv's cupolas are found in varying conditions, but most have suffered from relentless exposure to the elements. Metal ones are particularly vulnerable. "Rust is almost a given," he says, "and there are usually bullet holes in them, too. You can fix them, but some people like them that way." Marv believes in preserving his. "It's like an old car," he says. "If you don't protect them, they just keep rusting. Neither of the ones that belonged to my great-uncle have bullet holes, and that's almost unheard of."

He won't go so far as to change a cupola's base to fit a given structure. That, he believes, impacts the piece's historical value. "I never try to convert them or change their angle," he says, "so I have to work with the building pitch I have."

Appreciation for cupola design and craftsmanship has inspired Marv to craft a few of his own. Using cedar and copper, he built a cupola for the roof of his home. After that, he built an even more elaborate hand-crafted piece for his barn (which has "Grabau" worked in red shingles on the roof). In fact, no building on his farm is safe from Marv's latest hobby. "We even have a ventilator (and a lightning rod) on the outhouse," he says, eyeing a 1913 structure hauled in from a neighboring town. "It must be insanity."

Marv is always on the lookout for a new addition to his collection, although he readily admits he's running out of display room. "If I have a chance to take a different road to the same place, I do, because I might catch something I haven't seen before," he says. "And tree leaves in the summer hide things that you can see in the winter." He's been known to delve into conversation with landowners and farmers whose fields harbor abandoned machinery, in an effort to save a historic relic from the salvage yard. Often he's successful: "If you just ask if you can take something home, a lot of times they'll let you," he says. "What I don't like is when you go down the road and there's a hole with stuff burning in it and smoke rolling out. That stuff is gone forever."

- For more information, contact Marv Grabau, or make arrangements to view his collection, call (507) 352-5052.

Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy is a freelance writer in Spring Valley, Minn.