A round barn rises in rural America. In its rafters – grief and hope

LOGAN COUNTY, Okla. — Interest arises among the wheat fields along rural Highway 33 that cuts through the town of Guthrie.

It is a huge circular building — about 15,000 square feet inside — with a domed roof surmounted by an ornate cupola and a copper eagle. Standing at 72 feet, it can be seen for miles across the flat expanse of Oklahoma.

Jay Branson is building one in his backyard. He calls it his round barn, but it’s more of a cathedral of the prairie.

He worked on it for seven years. As it is being built, strangers come. They pull off the highway, drive up his long driveway, and look.

Some, enraptured by this beauty, cried when they saw the interior of the dome, with its lifting rings of interlocking diamonds and octagons that Jay hand-carved from poplar wood.

At the top is the oculus, a circular opening in the roof like the Pantheon in Rome. When the sunlight gets inside, the effect is simply heavenly.

My cousin is 59. He’s honest and self-deprecating like us Bransons usually are.

He would never admit it, but he is an artist. Praise his work and Jay, ever the stoic, will usually reply, “It is what it is.”


As a young man in the 1980s, Jay, a farm boy with a golden tan and muscles chiseled from baling hay and building houses, traveled to Washington to visit a friend.

Inside the US Capitol, Jay craned his neck in awe of the dome, wanting to build one someday.

“There’s nobody in Oklahoma that would hire my dumb ass to go out and build a round roof,” he remembers thinking. “If you went to a bank to build a round dome, they would laugh you out of the bank. If it’s not a square box, they don’t want to lend you money.

“I knew my chances of being able to do that were probably slim to none.”

Jay grew up on my great-grandmother’s farm outside the c the tiny farming town of Marshall, Oklahoma, population about 200, where my family – on both my dad’s and my mom’s sides – goes back generations. It was so in its heyday proud place nicknamed Prairie City, with a main street nearly as wide as a football field—large enough for a horse-drawn carriage and its legendary high school band make a U-turn.

Now there is not much of this place left. Its only school has closed, and the buildings in the city center have long been boarded up.

It is the epitome of rural Flyover Country, which is too often dismissed and caricatured by outsiders. But as hard as it is, the beauty—and the brilliance—is there.

My great-grandparents raised eight children in Marshall. My grandfather, Gerald “Butch” Branson, was the oldest. Jay, 18 years his junior, was the second youngest.

They were poor. And they worked hard.

At 13, Jay got his first summer construction job, hauling bricks and mixing mortar for a crew building a parsonage church just across the county line. It was hard work, the weather “hotter than a blue flame,” Jay said.

“When I was a kid, I hauled hay, but it was nothing like it,” he said. “That’s when I decided, ‘You know, I’ve got to smarten up,'” which job he took, “or I’m going to be old when I’m 20.”

My dad remembers Jay as a teenager with curly brown hair and a dry sense of humor bodybuilding on dirt roads with a rope strapped to his body, pulling an old Jeep like a horse pulling a buggy.

Fresh out of high school, Jay went to work for his older brother John, who was a handyman and repairman, but wanted to strike out on his own. Using a Reader’s Digest do-it-yourself guide, the Branson boys taught themselves how to build walls and build buildings.

Their work was steady, and eventually Jay also struck out on his own. He built houses and businesses, as well as my childhood playhouse with its own set of monkeys. He had his own successful construction company and employees.

As he admits, he is “considered an eccentric”, prone to the fact that he gets bored of “building a box over and over again”.

On the lark, he studied the pH level of the water and the filtration system and began construction of waterfalls of native Oklahoma sandstone for homes and municipal park.

One day, Jay bought a concession truck, built a custom kitchen for it, and started selling cinnamon rolls based on a recipe he came up with as a teenager, “sitting at home one night in Marshall, in that little house, boring his pumpkin. »

He named his food truck Sleeping Dog Cinnamon Rolls. It was one of his favorite pastimes, selling desserts at blueberry and watermelon festivals with his brother John, who was battling Parkinson’s disease and was buried last year in his usual white work shirt.

But the cinnamon rolls didn’t pay the bill. Jay sold the van and continued building houses.

“That damn money always gets in the way,” he said. “It is what it is.”


Eventually, Jay built himself a squat adobe house 25 minutes from Marshall and built a happy life there with his new wife, Julie, her two little girls, and their infant daughter.

Then Julie, a beloved third grade teacher, started to get sick. She had scleroderma, a cruel autoimmune disease that hardens the skin and internal organs. Jay bought a 45-foot motorhome that they drove to visit her family out of state. He furnished her with beautiful furniture, he wanted her to be comfortable.

Julie died in 2016. She was 48 years old.

Her daughters have pasted pictures of her all over the house, smiling with those big brown eyes.

“I would get up from the bed we had just slept on and go into the closet to prepare something. Here are her clothes and shoes, Jay said. “You go in to brush your teeth, but her toothbrush is next to yours.”

On weekends, the girls – the youngest is only 10 years old – went to their friends and tried to do something. Jay was often left alone at home with his grief.

To be healthy, he went out into his backyard and started building a shed.

Although not very common, round barns have a long history in the United States

George Washington had a 16-sided barn at his Mount Vernon estate. And, as they say, the first really round shed in the country was built by A Shaker religious community in Massachusetts in the 1820s.

They were effective for farmers, who saved time by walking in a continuous circle to feed their animals, said Dennis Craig, a historic preservation officer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who three historic round barns on campus.

Religious people loved them because, they said, the devil does not hide in corners. And the round barns were touted as being more aerodynamic and better suited to the winds in Tornado Alley than the square buildings. Famous Arcadia Round Barn on Route 66, built in 1898, is half an hour southeast of Jay’s home.

Jay’s was originally going to be a utilitarian building, a store big enough to park your motorhome inside and rent it out. He built it on weekends and at night while continuing to build houses.

He began building the walls — using thick, double-insulated foam and rebar blocks that he filled with concrete — in the shape of a giant circle.

A neighbor suggested turning it into a wedding venue. He began to visualize the dome fixated on him as he lay in bed every night.

Jay drew a simple sketch of the interlocking octagons and diamonds that form the arched ribs of the dome, but he never made the actual plan.

“I just started cutting,” he said. “You know, if you count the circumference of any circular structure and divide it into segments, there’s a way. You just have to get it straight, get it right and just start building.”

Each piece of wood in the dome is hand carved, uniquely shaped and curved, each placed at a different angle. Using a piece of aluminum, he made himself a check mark, an age-old measuring tool used by shipbuilders for intricate cuts in wood.

He worked from a lift that carried him 65 feet inside. For the top of the structure, he created a steel tower that sat on top of the dome and connected a winch line to it. He tied the harness and swung from the cable while working on the exterior of the structure.

He used poplar, which he bought green and aged for several years, as well as pine and cherry wood.

For the front awning, he used sassafras, a semi-soft wood that darkens with age, smells like root beer when cut, and reminds him of the sassafras tea he drank as a child.

Jeff Williams, retired professor of architecture at Oklahoma State University, said it reminded him of the ancient Duomo in Florence, Italy. The cathedral was built over 140 years; architects puzzled over how to build its dome for years.

Jeff, whose wife is with Marshalmet Jay a few years ago while standing in line for coffee at Panera Bread, where they were both regulars.

“At that point it was just concrete walls,” Jeff said. “I was interested, just because of the use of materials. But I wasn’t sure if it was real or not.

“The more he shared with me, I thought, ‘This is a pretty creative guy.’ But then I started seeing it’s — and it was like, holy cow.”

Standing in the barn on a cold day this winter, the teenage wind chilling, Jeff told Jay, “That was your therapy.”

Jay remarried a few years ago. When he met Valerie, whose homemade cookies rivaled Jay’s cinnamon rolls, the barn’s plain concrete walls were about 3 feet high. Now they stand 20 feet tall – taller than an adobe house.

Valerie helped Jay plaster walls and prop up pieces of wood that were taller than she was, lowered him when he got stuck on the lift, and dreamed with him about all the possibilities of the barn.

“Since she married me, she’s been building all the time,” he said.

“I share it,” she said with a laugh. “I share it with that barn over there.”

They provide a huge space for events. Jay is building a spacious bridal suite and bar in an outbuilding at the back, overlooking a wheat field. Valerie is very excited to get started on the interior design, tiles and colors.

In order to get all the government permits to make it an event space, Jay had to hire an architect to draw up the official blueprints for the building — which had already been built without them. He nicknamed his barn the Bird’s Nest because we always called him Jay Bird.

Although it remains unfinished, so many people have come from the highway that he has finally posted a guest book. Records from California, Colorado, South Dakota, and Texas. From all over the Sooner state. There is even one from Canada.

Jay never thought it would take him this long to build a shed.

But five years ago, the prostate cancer he thought he had beaten years ago returned. It spread. My strong uncle, swinging from the rafters, lost weight. He is tired.

It’s the same cancer that afflicted his older brother, my grandfather Butch. My grandfather, a stern man who made teddy bears in his final days, died aged 52 when I was 10.

Jay says he’s doing better. He tries to build a shed throughout the year, and always works in heat, cold and constant wind.

He doesn’t talk much about cancer.

It is what it is.


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