Barn Toppers: A Unique Collection of Capolas

Richard Mayers' collection of barn toppers honers underrated relics.

| April 2006

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    Opposite page: A LaCrosse cupola towers over a Butler (right) and an unknown model (left). All three are displayed at the Albany Pioneer Grounds at Albany, Minn.
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    Right: Richard Mayers’ last name is etched in this stained glass, kite-shaped wind arrow.
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    Above: Richard Mayers and Terri Gertken, owner of the Albany Antique Center, hold unique items from his collection: a Black Swan arrow tail, an “M” once bolted to the crown of a cupola in Waverly, Iowa, and a James Co. pig mounted on a wind arrow.
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    Left: A mid-size unknown cupola, displayed at Albany Pioneer Grounds.Center: The Clay Co. made a small cupola only 14 to 16 inches across the base and 18 inches high. (Photo by Bill Vossler.)Right: Because this James Co. cupola and arrow were removed from a chicken coop roof, they now sit at a 30-degree slant.
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    Right: A zinc steel cow rides the tail of an elaborate arrow, spinning around an arrowhead-shaped lightning rod point and a zinc steel ball. The diamond-shaped “M” on the directional identifies the manufacturer: Milwaukee Corrugated Tin Co. This complete set might have cost $100 when it was new.
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    Left: A wooden cupola from Fort Ripley, Minn., has close-cut three-way joints, each louver and gable angle-cut by hand. Richard Mayers removed layers of steel and asphalt shingles to expose the original wooden shingles.
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    Above: An embossed design in the upper band enhances a King Co. cupola. King, an early manufacturer in Minneapolis, produced many of the most common cupolas.
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    Below: This rusted cupola is an example of simple models made in Pierz, Minn.
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    Left: Two different looks for a cupola: A large blue Electra ball in a tall twisted-wire pendant holder, next to an angled dark red Diddie-Blitzen ball on a scrolled metal stand.
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    Far right: Made in LaCrosse, Wis., this cupola is Mayers’ tallest, stretching 13-1/2 feet to the point. It would be difficult to find and take down one as large. (Photo by Bill Vossler.)
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    Right: This Chief cupola was manufactured in Iowa. The weathered paint identifying it is visible only on close inspection.
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It was the kind of mission that must have made Richard Mayers wish he collected watch fobs or ephemera or even salesman's samples. But Richard, who lives in Albany, Minn., collects barn cupolas, and when he heard of a three-cupola deal just 60 miles away, he jumped on it.

He got the first two loaded in his truck, but the third - a huge LaCrosse - wouldn't fit. "I didn't want to drive another 120 miles to get it, so I told the guy I'd take the two for the same money. He said, 'If you don't take that big one today, you can't take any. It's all three, or none. Get that big one out of here.' Turns out, it's one of my best cupolas, though I was going to leave it at first. Somebody offered $800 for my LaCrosse. But, at 5 feet 2 inches at the base and 13 feet 6 inches high to the point, it's too big to find another."

Cupola collectors are used to tales like that. Though they're huge, the barn toppers often escape attention. However, Richard has an eye (and a passion) for them. He knows the brands, the differences and the locations where he's spotted unusual cupolas. His passion extends to lightning rods and balls, directionals, wind vanes, arrows and pendants, all once attached to cupola roofs.

Unlike those attachments, cupolas were more about function than form. The cupola was designed to vent hot air from the barn in winter, and moisture in the summer. The taller the cupola, the greater a vacuum it created and the more drawing power.



Richard started collecting cupolas 25 years ago. "I was trying to come up with the next collectible item," he recalls. "At one auction, I saw two big cupolas for sale, for $9 and $13. I figured the buyers paid way too much. On the way home, I thought, 'You want something nobody else collects. Yet, you just passed up two cupolas that could have been a hundred years old, but you wouldn't pay $22. Wrong.' Next time I went to an auction, I started buying cupolas." Today Richard has between 50 and 60 cupolas.

ONE SPECTACULAR LIGHTNING ROD, THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK (NAMED BECAUSE OF ITS SIX SEPARATE TINES), DATES TO THE CIVIL WAR AND IS VALUED AT NEARLY $1,000.

CZECH SCIENTIST PROKOP DIVIS INVENTED A LIGHTNING ROD AT THE SAME TIME bEN FRANKLIN WAS CONDUCTING ELECTRICAL EXPERIMENTS IN THE 1750s. FRANKLIN ADVOCATED A SHARP LIGHTNING ROD, WHILE ENGLISH AND EUROPEAN MODELS FEATURED BLUNT TIPS.

While his collection is substantial, the body of knowledge surrounding antique cupolas remains slim. "There is surprisingly little information about the actual names of the cupola companies, other than proper names," says Richard.