The Trimborn Farm
This article is taken from The Milwaukee Journal "Home Section," Sunday,
29 OCT 1972.
The Past in Our Present
11 Buildings Still Stand
at Old Limestone Quarry
by H. Russell Zimmerman*
Many of Milwaukee's 19th century buildings are held together with mortar made from Werner Trimborn's lime. For more than 50 years, the Trimborn Farm, at 8881 W. Grange Ave., Greensdale, was one of southeastern Wisconsin's most important sources of lime.
Among the farm's 11 buildings are the remains of two limekilns, which may date back to the early 1840s, before Trimborn settled here. The burning of lime there was almost continuous from the time the property left the Indians' hands until the turn of the century.
The shaded structures are the original buildings as shown in an 1876 atlas of Milwaukee County. They are, clockwise from the top, the four-flue kiln, stone barn, stable, house, small stone building (smokehouse or fruit cellar), and a bunkhouse. Added items include, again clockwise from top, chicken house, machine shed, blacksmith shop, concrete silos, and a milk house.
The 530 acre Trimborn farm in Greendale stretched from what is now S. 76th St. northwestward across W. Grange Ave. to what would be S. 100th St., generally following the Root River.
Although Trimborn's name has been the one longest associated with the operation, he was not the original builder of the kilns.
Shortly after the territorial land sale, the easily accessible limestone deposit was discovered and the owners of the property recognized its value for the production of lime.
Records of the first decade after pioneer settlement are understandably sketchy, but we do have enough evidence to make reasonable assumptions.
An 80-acre piece of the farm was purchased, in 1842, by a man identified as Jeremiah Daniel. His name later turned out to be Jeremiah O'Donnell.
Mistakes were frequent in early records, a fact that is obvious in two of Trimborn's first mentions.
On a Warranty deed, he is listed as Trimbone and on an old map his name appears as W. Timber.
It is not unreasonable then to assume that O'Donnell might be the P. O'Donnell who came to America from Ireland in 1842 and, as it was noted, "began working on a farm, and afterwards engaged in the lime business."
Whether that is true or not, we find, on an 1858 map, the name J. O'Donnell connected with the farm property. There are five lime kilns shown in the area--two on O'Donnell's land, one for W. Timber, and another pair in the quarter section lying north of what is now Grange Ave. The latter 160-acre parcel, which then belonged to P. Welsh, eventually was added to the Trimborn holdings.
In 1850, O'Donnell leased his lime manufacturing business and 10 acres to a partnership that included Jacob Kier, Louis Esser and Matthew Joseph. A year later Trimborn and Kier formed the partnership and purchased the 10 acres which included two limekilns and the house.
To avoid complications with his previous partners, Kier transferred his one-half interest in the property to Trimborn to be held in trust.
Four years later Kier took Trimborn to court on the complaint that Trimborn had sold the ten acres to his son, August, "without consideration and in fraud of the rights of this complaint."
The courts forced a settlement and the partnership was dissolved.
From that day until his death in 1879, Trimborn poured his energies into building the lime business, which made him a wealthy man.
By the time he was an old man, his Greenfield Township farm had grown to 530 acres, he owned six houses and a number of choice lots in Milwaukee and 80 acres in Muskego.
Born in Germany
But his wealth had not come easily. He was a self-made man who with determination and backbreaking labor fought for every dollar.
He was born in 1801 in the town of Geich in Prussia. He married in his 20s and after his parents' deaths inherited their farm, a tavern and a general store.
His wife, however, contracted a serious illness, which lasted for 18 years and drained all of the family's resources. When she died, Trimborn decided that since he had to work for someone else, he might as well do it in the land of opportunity. His family agreed and they set out for America, arriving in Wisconsin July 24, 1847.
Having little money, he was forced to rent a farm on Beloit Rd. He tired quickly of farming and moved into Milwaukee where the 1851 city directory listed him as a teamster located on E. Water St. It was with the proceeds of that work that he entered the partnership with Kier.
Put Sons to Work
Once in the lime business, Trimborn put his sons, August and Leonard, to work and hoped for rapid success. But because they were German, and since they had competitors, there was more resistance than they had anticipated.
Selling lime became so tough that his sons wanted to give up and work for someone else. Trimborn persisted, however, believing that Milwaukee would become a large city and that business would improve.
His optimism was well founded and within a relatively short time he saw the business grow to become a dominant supplier.
When the company was at its peak, an article appeared in the June 13th, 1875 issue of the Volks-Magazin. (See Volks-Magazin article.) In the story, the following description (translated from German) was written of the farm:
"The property on which the lime kiln is found lies in the friendly valley in the town of Greenfield. Root Creek runs through it. Its complete area is 523 acres. The roomy living quarters are built of Milwaukee brick set on a solid foundation of limestone and functionally furnished.
"Among several living quarters for men, sheds and stables, there are also placed a fruit house, a massive barn for horses and a large frame granary with stables for cattle, pigs and fowl.
"Six limestone kilns are always in production, in winter less, in summer more, and to keep them running usually takes 30 to 40 laborers.
"More than 20 wagons and sleighs and over 50 horses are kept on the farm to bring the limestone to the kiln and to take away the lime, as well as supplying the necessary fuel which generally runs to about 6,000 cords of wood a year.
When lime is added to the proper amount of sand and water, a mortar is formed which, upon setting, becomes as hard as rock. This basic gem of chemistry has been used for centuries to hold man's architectural creations together.
To make it, limestone (impure calcium carbonate) is stacked in a vertical kiln (oven). Intense heat is applied at the bottom of the pile (by a wood fire in the old days) and a chemical decomposition takes place.
Residue Is Lime
Carbon dioxide gas (the gas of carbonated beverages) is released from the limestone, leaving calcium oxide, which is lime, as a residue. The reaction normally would be reversible, and would not make lime, but the tall vertical chimney creates such a draft that carbon dioxide is drawn off before it can enter a reaction.
The Trimborns and their predecessors were blessed with a sizeable deposit of limestone, close to the surface. A large abandoned quarry and a smaller excavation can still be seen on the property north of Grange Ave.
Near the quarry are the remains of an old, twin flue kiln which dates back to the days when Welsh owned the property. The property was later added to the Trimborn property on the south side of Grange. Ave.
South of Grange Ave. there are are 10 buildings, six of which date back to 1876 when they were pictured in a lithograph in an illustrated atlas of Milwaukee County (See below.).
This is a copy of a lithograph taken from an 1876 atlas of Milwaukee County; it shows the Werner Trimborn Farm. Still standing are the farm- house (left-foreground), one of the bunkhouses behind it, the kiln (back- ground) the stone barn and stable (right). Some artistic license was taken with the drawing: the house is shown with five upper front windows; it had only three.
On the left of the lithograph is the cream city brick farmhouse which has since lost its front porch.
Behind it are two large bunkhouses for the working men. Only one survives today, but it is in fine condition.
The wooden clapboard siding covers a wall where brick is used to fill spaces between the study. There is no covering on the inside, and it appears that it was originally that way since the mortar joints are very neat.
In the foreground, at right, is a stable or granary sided in vertical board and batten. Behind it is the most important piece of architecture on the property.
Described in 1875 as a "massive barn for horses," the rare structure is one of only a handful of stone barns in the state of Wisconsin.
The ancient specimen has solid stone walls to the eaves and a beautiful roof constructed of hewn oak timbers. It is built in two sections--the rear two-thirds first and the front third later.
The rafters are supported by two large purlins running the length of the building. Into those are mortised a series of massive oak supports which stand at an angle and are, in turn, braced by opposing timbers. Lap joints were hewn expertly and everything is held together with hardwood pegs.
In the center background of the lithograph is a four flue kiln in operation. It is still there, complete with the hill which is used as a ramp for wagons.
After Trimborn's death, his son, August, took over the operation of the kilns and lived on the farm, while the other son, Leonard, handled the city distribution office downtown on Water St. By 1882 they began to rent the use of certain kilns and the quarry to Schultz and Bond.
The government bought the farm in 1935 as part of its "greenbelt" preplanned communities project. The Department of Agriculture's Resettlement Administration acquired 3,411 acres of Greenfield Township and created the village of Greendale.
Since then farm has passed into the hands of the Greendale Land Co. which is now developing the area. Keith and Delores Williams lease a little more than 50 acres from the original Trimborn holdings (the section which contains all buildings) where they operate the Circle H boarding stables.
If the Greendale Manor development on 92nd St. is continued north, as planned, the old farm buildings will be surrounded by a subdivision and probably will be destroyed. But the developers may appreciate their legacy and find a way to use one or more of the historic buildings in the new project.
Additional note: The Trimborn Farm has since become the preserve of the Historical Society. A second article from 10 NOV 1997 UpDates the progress of the historical society Farm Update. Anne C. (Spellman) Leahy answered a questionnaire for the soceity. Go to questionnaire.