The barn, and beyond
ON THE DAY Brett Favre came out of another retirement to join the Minnesota Vikings, Patti Schroeder’s feelings for the quarterback finally soured enough to demand action. The strongest feelings we have can do that. Schroeder’s emotions often start a creative current. Her passion forces a headfirst dive into activity, almost as though it’s second nature.
Schroeder’s dive led her back up a ladder, taking down the message she’d placed on the side of her barn after Favre first tearfully left professional football, after the Green Bay Packers traded him to the New York Jets when he emerged from that first retirement.
The same day Favre made his announcement, Schroeder made one of her own. It represented how she was feeling about a decision she and many others believe Favre made knowing how much it would affect Packers fans. “I was broken-hearted when he lifted up the purple jersey,” Schroeder says. Her message was intended to make herself feel better in what she thought would be her own subtle way.
The barn originally read: “4 ever in our <3.” With a day off from work the same afternoon Favre turned purple, Schroeder brought the corrugated plastic heart she took off the barn inside. On the kitchen floor, the same place she always made the signs, with a bottle of wine and a boxcutter, she sliced a jagged line down its center. The screws still remaining in the two pieces, Schroeder went back outside, got back up on the ladder, and drilled the broken heart back onto the side of the barn.
U.S. HIGHWAY 10 IS a long vein of road extending nearly 300 miles across Wisconsin’s belly, across flatlands and farms and trees and highway-side bars and grills. Highway 10 makes travel between, say, Green Bay and Stevens Point a breeze, but the drive can also be monotonous between cities and signs of life.
Going westbound, past the exit for Highway 45 going towards New London, the barn appears around a corner. An access road loops back to the property off of Highway 10. Driving westbound the barn, technically in Larsen, hides behind trees and is easier to miss than when driving east, where the barn’s red visage is plainly visible overlooking the highway without the cover of curvy roads or trees.
It’s not quite noticeable from the road, but the barn has taken a beating these last few years. A storm with straight line winds dropped trees and limbs throughout the 10-acre property a couple of years ago. It took Schroeder and some friends a day to clean the debris. Some branches still hang in trees from that storm, waiting for a forceful gust of wind to knock them out.
Because of that storm, the barn looks “like it was sandblasted,” Schroeder says. “It needs to be repainted.” When that happens, the barn’s current message – #12 is #1, a tribute to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers – will need to come down.
Schroeder is waiting for another reason to change the sign. She would like to add one more thought on the barn. But right now those changes could require something substantial, like another Packers Super Bowl title. Schroeder wants to add either a period behind the current message – “To make it a definitive statement,” she says, referring in-part to the fact that Rodgers would have two Super Bowls to Favre’s one – or a “Told ya” underneath the existing statement. Either way, the sentiment is clear.
But nobody knows if the Packers will win another Super Bowl. And Schroeder doesn’t know if a message will go back up once it comes down, or if she’ll still have the barn when it happens.
THE LETTERS AND NUMBERS aren’t painted on. They are old corrugated plastic signs no longer in use at the gas station Schroeder co-owns in Clintonville, Schroeder Shell. The material is made to withstand the elements. The numbers, which look like they do on NFL uniforms, are cut with a boxcutter, traced only by Schroeder’s eyes. “It’s just from looking at jerseys in the newspaper,” she says.
After they’re cut but before they go on the side of the barn, Schroeder uses a screw gun to insert screws into the pieces, making sure they’re in place before getting carried up the ladder on the side of the barn. Once she climbs the ladder, Schroeder uses a drill gun to secure the plastic pieces in place. She tries to make sure a friend is standing on the ground to help get the message level.
That’s all there is to it. Or, that’s how Schroeder sees it. There’s a shoulder-shrugging, casual way to how Schroeder describes the process of making her old barn into the quasi-landmark for Packers fans it is today. There’s a feeling of finality, too, even if she wouldn’t mind having a reason to alter the message again. One thinks Schroeder would be fine leaving the barn’s Packers legacy where it’s at.
The future of the property as a whole, on the other hand, needs to live on.
THE MESSAGE WAS received pretty much from the instant Schroeder broke the heart. Back inside not long after it was back up that day, Schroeder got a call from someone in Seymour. “Did you just break the heart on the barn? They’re talking about it on the radio.”
Someone had seen it driving along Highway 10 and called in. Sports radio, already having been fed the chum of another Favre angle, bit on this new development. The barn was one snapshot in the much larger Favre v. the Packers album illustrating that stage in team history. More than that, the barn was a poignant display of the quick-releasing and raw emotion that hemorrhaged out of Packers fans when Favre signed with Minnesota. Like the plastic heart, the move split the fanbase, dividing people into corrosive factions – Favre fans and Packers fans – sneerily sniping at and angrily shouting towards one another for the better part of two seasons.
With the barn, Schroeder effectively had a billboard with which to advertise her feelings. While she didn’t initially think many would notice – when the original message went up some people, not recognizing the NFL-style No. 4, assumed someone had died – that didn’t last as the vitriol around the state festered.
The situation reached its apex in 2010, Favre’s second season with the Vikings and last in the NFL. As the wheels were flying off Minnesota’s season, a battered Favre ended his consecutive games started streak at 297, then returned the following week to suffer a concussion in a grimy game against the Chicago Bears played at the University of Minnesota’s field after the snowy collapse of the Metrodome’s roof forced the contest outdoors. This was Favre’s last game.
Meanwhile, the Packers had swept the season series with Minnesota and snuck into the postseason in Week 17. They’d, of course, go on to win Super Bowl XLV in February. During that championship run, with the cool brilliance displayed by Rodgers, and after allegations that Favre sexted former Jets employee Jenn Sterger and was additionally sued by two of the team’s massage therapists for sending racy messages (Favre was found not in violation of the league’s personal conduct policy but was fined for not cooperating with the investigation, and the lawsuit with the massage therapists was settled earlier this year), Schroeder felt compelled to make a change.
The barn’s message became: “#12 is 3 x #4,” signaling recognition for Rodgers – “He’s just awesome, he’s pure class,” Schroeder says – and jabbing at Favre. Schroeder believes Favre further stomped on the hearts of some female Packers fans when the sexting scandals surfaced. Favre’s entire family – especially his wife, Deanna – became considered part of the larger Packerland family through the years. Combine that with joining the hated Vikings and, as Schroeder said, “That’s when I trashed him.”
After a story first appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in February 2011, news of the barn’s update crossed the country. From blogs to sports networks such as the New England Sports Network (NESN), the gist of the change came through but some of its details were bent and warped like damaged mail – “Some stories said I owned a Citgo,” Schroeder said as an example. The barn’s message that she never expected to blossom eventually got featured on an episode of ESPN’s Outside the Lines, exploring fan’s homages to the Packers around the state.
SCHROEDER’S PASSION FOR the Packers was tested by distance but never in doubt. A Clintonville native, Schroeder got a degree in interior design from Fox Valley Technical College and worked for major fabric companies up and down the east coast. Work brought her to Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut and North Carolina – the last she says with a Southern drawl – and always paid for her moves between places. It wasn’t as easy to get access to games nationwide then, but the Packers were her reminder of home.
“My only connection (to Wisconsin) out east was Packers games,” Schroeder says. She couldn’t watch them unless Green Bay faced a team on the east coast. Living in Massachusetts for Super Bowl XXXI between the Packers and New England Patriots, Schroeder went to a Super Bowl party. Her creativity again sparked by her love for the team, Schroeder had Wisconsin cheese delivered. With the cheese on a platter, Schroeder brought crackers in a bowl placed in an upside-down cheesehead. “That space is a perfect place to put a bowl,” Schroeder said. She celebrated the Super Bowl championship in the heart of Patriots country.
But even more than the Packers as a whole, it was Favre that served as Schroeder’s main connection back to her home state. “I just remember his love and enthusiasm for the game,” she said. “You got excited with him.”
Schroeder thinks whatever happened behind closed doors with Packers general manager Ted Thompson during those tumultuous times before his trade made Favre bitter, nasty. It’s clear she remains conflicted when it comes to what’s going to happen next between the quarterback and his former team. When asked about the seemingly very-probable return of Favre to the Packers’ family in the near future, Schroeder sighs, then says, “I don’t know what I want.”
IN A WAY, it was always going to be this barn. Schroeder remembers noticing the barn growing up. On drives with her father she would wait for it, asking him: “Did you get to the pretty barn yet?”
Shortly after she came back to Wisconsin after years on the east coast, she was again driving past the old barn – the route at that time was Highway 41 to Highway 110 to County Road W to County Road D. On this trip, though, she saw a For Sale sign posted outside the Victorian house that shared the property with the barn. Accompanied by her brother, a realtor, Schroeder went to check the place out. Patti pays mind to the idea of karma, but here, she felt fate stepping in and making an executive decision. She bought the property in 1997.
“I love it,” Schroeder said. “I love the historical aspect.”
The farm was built in 1895. An add-on to the barn was made in 1906. The land it rests on was given to a soldier by President Millard Fillmore before Wisconsin was a state – Schroeder believes sometime in the 1830s. The farm was originally known as Schumann Farm, after the man who owned it. When Schumann’s daughter married into the Warning family, inheriting the farm, it became known as Warning Farm for an extended period of time.
Before Schroeder transformed it into the place known for the Packers barn, she says people remembered the property by a wooden table and chairs she has set up in a corner of the front yard near the road. Right now there is one chair and a table. People would tell her they wished they could stop and sit as they drove by, but Schroeder doesn’t think anyone ever has.
Home to some high school dances back in the day, Schroeder also hosted parties in the barn from time to time. Decor still hangs inside the barn today; white Christmas lights are woven between lattices, other arrangements still sit or hang, seemingly since the night of the bash. A small staircase and railing were constructed, dividing the barn into a majestic split-level area, its high-pointed roof giving it the look of a cathedral. Dried-up flowers still line the staircase. On the wall of the barn with the plastic letters and numbers on its outside, sunlight strikes through. You can see the outline of the message through the gaps between the barn’s long wooden panels.
THE TWO-STORY white house has green trim around the windows and doors. A long porch in front stretches across about half of the width of the house and faces the road. Behind the house sits a small building with red wood and white trim around the frame and door. This is the old smokehouse, where meats were seasoned and hung. A clothesline stands nearby and a pile of kindling lays beside it.
To its left is another, slightly bigger red building with white trim and a chimney – the old summer kitchen, used to keep the main house from overheating in sweaty summers of the past. That major storm a few years back shook the kitchen’s foundation and brought a tree crashing down on top of it. The summer kitchen survived, somehow. Next to some potting soil and yard work tools, the kitchen houses the old corrugated plastic numbers and letters from Schroeder’s previous Packers messages. The holes from old screws are rusted. The base of one of the old No. 4s is, maybe symbolically, snapped off.
There’s a dog toy laying in the yard next to the house’s side door off the driveway. Next to the door reads a sign: “A spoiled dog lives here.” On the doorstep, a little garden gnome stands clad in Packers green and gold.
Tall trees and a wire fence separate the front lawn and driveway from the frontage road that runs next to Highway 10. Back when Highway 10 was just in its planning stages, the frontage road formerly known as County Road W needed a new name. Spurred by a former neighbor’s idea, Manu Road received enough write-in votes from the people who lived on it.
Manu Road was named after Schroeder’s beloved pet duck, who was named when Schroeder’s sister surprised her with an Easter basket in the late-90s. When they were children, Patti’s sister had done a similar thing. So this time, Manu wasn’t Schroeder’s old duck. It was, as she says, “ma-nu duck.” (Schroeder also named her dog, a St. Bernard, Webster, after finding inspiration from a dictionary.) She loves all her pets, old and new.
Parallel to the house, a gravelly and grassy driveway snaking between, is a long old garage with the same red-painted wood and white trim and two sets of sliding doors on each end. Atop the garage, a peak perches with a weathervane pointing up. An old bell hangs inside the peak. On the other side of the garage, a fenced-in barnyard runs up to the barn.
This barnyard is where Manu, when he was alive, and ducks Bonnie and Clyde – Schroeder bought them at an auction – hung out in a pristine little pond, under the cover of foliage to protect them from hawks. To keep them warm and comfortable, Schroeder made a VIP suite for the ducks in an area used for hay storage inside the bottom portion of the barn.
Past the summer kitchen and smokehouse is wide open green space rolling back to property line fencing. To the right of the smokehouse, a young line of trees are planted. This is the newest row in an orchard of 30-some trees bearing multiple kinds of apples along with pears, peaches and cherries. Schroeder hopes this could be the start of a lot more going towards using the property to its full potential.
IT WENT THROUGH a variety of owners over the years, but Schroeder, who lived here until 2011, had one of the longest tenures. Schroeder rents the property out now. Coming back she notices the little things she used to do to keep up the vast property’s appearance. Touching up paint here, pulling weeds there, picking up sticks or brush over there. It was a lot for Schroeder when she loved doing nothing but maintaining it, and it’s a lot for the current couple, Melinda Wulf and her fiance, who are residing there now. They’ve had bigger concerns in recent years.
One day while attending classes at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s College of Nursing, Wulf passed out. Complications from a virus affecting her heart had worsened, and she would undergo multiple surgeries. Ultimately, she had to wait for and eventually receive a heart transplant. The 25-year-old is recovering now, eight months removed from the transplant and resting, hanging out with her always-energetic – and presumably spoiled – dog, Driver, and still taking occasional trips to Chicago, where she had the transplant, for check-ups.
Wulf is a devoted Packers fan with near-photographic memory of the team’s recent past. Because she can’t yet return to work, she is taking advantage by going to every home game this season. She is starting to get back on track, and has the tranquility of the farm to help the process. It goes without saying that Schroeder and Wulf get along great, sharing both that passion for the team – Wulf says Favre knew he was “twisting the knife” into Packers fans when he signed with Minnesota – but also a love for this property. For the orchard and the space and the quiet – but a little less quiet with the bustle of Highway 10 and always-coming-and-going semis, they say. “It’s just cool, as a die-hard Packers fan, to say you live there,” Wulf said. Because of everything they like about it, they share a belief that the property, and the barn, goes to the right people when the time comes.
“Hopefully whoever buys it continues it on, or at least keeps them up,” Wulf says of the barn’s messages.
Schroeder lives in New London now. She runs her gas station in Clintonville. About five months ago, she got a half-Great Dane, half-Mastiff puppy named Mumford, after one of her favorite bands, Mumford and Sons. “He’s growing every day,” Schroeder says. She shows pictures of his already-rapid growth. By the time Mumford reaches his full size, he’ll probably weigh between 170 and 190 pounds.
She goes to one Packers game a year now, the rest of the season rotating Sundays between parties at her house or the homes of friends.
Walking around the property gives you a true sense of all the little things that go into keeping this much land in tip-top shape, the shape Schroeder always sees it as needing to be in. There are too many other directions she’s (happily) being pulled, though, meaning too little time to take care of the place properly. Perfect places like this need full attention and not less than that.
She plans to sell the farm eventually, but there will be a process. This won’t be sold to just anyone. “I feel like it should live on,” Schroeder says. Live on and continue evolving: ideally, Schroeder believes the property would make for an excellent sustainable, organic farm. The orchard could be expanded and harvested. The green space in back is untouched, and Schroeder could see raising goats there for their milk and cheese. She could see vegetables, other fruits, Saturday morning farmer’s markets. She could see the Packers barn continuing, or not. That won’t be a required field for potential buyers to check off, so long as the property lives on to its fullest.
AS SHE SAYS, smiling, Schroeder stopped caring about what people thought when she turned 50.
It’s why she didn’t care about plastering her barn with Packers-related messaging. In her mid-50s now, Schroeder remains passionate about the Packers, the barn, the property as a whole.
She’s comfortable in her skin, loves this place – a feeling she had as a child, even before she really *knew* she loved it – and the gigantic Wolf River apples on the trees today. She wears a green Aaron Rodgers jersey when we meet at the farm. Patti thinks that if the barn’s current form as the Packers Barn has run its course, so be it. It was born out of tribute but changed and became popular because of her applied energy in altering it with those hectic times. Creativity, for Schroeder, has usually sparked from truly caring about something. On the farm she’s had plenty of motivations but now, not enough time for all of them.
While inside the barn, Schroeder brings up Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem, “Success.” She paraphrases, skimming through the line: “ … to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or redeemed social condition.” The farm is her garden patch. The barn was an outlet for her Packers passion, the whole place alive with her creativity, still transforming into projects or future endeavors made for people to enjoy. She’s sometimes thought it was about making herself happy, but that seems to mean making sure others are, too.
With the barn she made herself happier as a situation she couldn’t control changed for the worse, then for the better. Expected or not, others connected with her feelings as a Packers fan during one of the stormiest periods in the team’s history. Seeing something on the side of a sometimes-bland Highway 10 that unexpectedly agrees with the sentiments you have, in the midst of such tension, can be a small, but good, feeling. Maybe it was your own inner-monologue written out on the side of a barn. Those messages were her contribution to that memorable chapter of being a Packers (or Favre) fan.
The farm is the garden patch she gives up to whomever gets it next. That, she can control and that, like the Packers barn’s next message, won’t be rushed when it doesn’t have to be. The sale will presumably happen at some point; the reason for a new message someday we can only hope to live through again. For now, Patti Schroeder has said what she’s wanted to say thus far, and she’s got other things to do.