Over the Top

Minnesota man builds collection of barn cupolas

| April 2005


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.”

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."