Over the Top

1 / 5
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.”
2 / 5
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.
3 / 5
Above: The outbuildings at Marv Grabau’s farm are nothing if not well ventilated. Several pieces from his collection top these three buildings.
4 / 5
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.
5 / 5
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.

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.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment