Over the Top

Minnesota man builds collection of barn cupolas

| April 2005

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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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    Below: Marv Grabau’s brilliant red barn is a standout in its own right. But capped by a wooden cupola, accented by a ventilator complete with lightning rod (visible just below the cupola) and clearly identified with the Grabau name scripted in red shingles, this barn is truly one of a kind. Marv spent more than 50 hours constructing the wooden cupola. The ventilator was salvaged from the nearby Forestville Township Schoolhouse; sharp eyes will spot the lightning rod’s white glass ball.
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    Above: The outbuildings at Marv Grabau’s farm are nothing if not well ventilated. Several pieces from his collection top these three buildings.
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    Above: Years ago, this building was the Forestville Township School, where both Marv Grabau and his father were once students. Now used as the Forestville Town Hall, the building has undergone extensive restoration, thanks in part to Marv’s efforts. He also built the wooden cupola atop the building, replacing the original structure built there to house the school bell, long since stolen.Above right: Marv Grabau with one of his cupolas, a 106-inch model graced by a weather vane complete with a handsome horse ornament. This piece fell from a friend’s barn and then, adding insult to injury, suffered attack by a lawnmower. Marv has repaired the piece, which is now ready for installation.Right: Marv recently acquired this outhouse, which dates to 1913, and moved it to his place to serve as a reminder of days long past. The humble structure is loaded with options: a decades-old ventilator and a lightning rod, complete with white glass balls.Below: A classic line-up. From left: A 64-inch cupola with blue glass ball on the lightning rod; a 48-inch cupola with white ball on the lightning rod; and a 32-inch cupola made by the Clay company. The latter model is of a style originally used on brooder houses.
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    Above: Although most cupolas Marv finds show the ravages of time and vandals, those he obtained from his great-uncle are unscathed … other than the markings made years ago by Marv’s cousins when they were children.

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  • MarvsBrilliantRedBarn.jpg
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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."