The Barn Wood Emporium
History of Barns

The Old Barn at Nostalgiaville

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From the days when Thomas Jefferson envisioned the new republic as a nation dependent on citizen farmers for its stability and its freedom, the family farm has been a vital image in the American consciousness.

As the main structures of farms, barns evoke a sense of tradition and security, of closeness to the land and community with the people who built them.

Even today the rural barn raising presents a forceful image of community spirit. Just as many farmers built their barns before they built their houses, so too many farm families look to their old barns as links with their past. Old barns, furthermore, are often community landmarks and make the past present. Such buildings embody ethnic traditions and local customs; they reflect changing farming practices and advances in building technology.


Dutch Barns Dutch Barns Dutch Barns Dutch Barns Dutch Barns
The first great barns built in this country were those of the Dutch settlers of the Hudson, Mohawk, and Schoharie valleys in New York State and scattered sections of New Jersey.   On the exterior, the most notable feature of the Dutch barn is the broad gable roof, which in early examples (now extremely rare), extended very low to the ground.

On the narrow end the Dutch barn features center doors for wagons and a door to the stock aisles on one or both of the side ends. A pent roof (or pentice) over the center doors gave some slight protection from the elements. The siding is typically horizontal, the detailing simple. Few openings other than doors and traditional holes for martins puncture the external walls. The appearance is of massiveness and simplicity, with the result that Dutch barns seem larger than they actually are.

To many observers the heavy interior structural system is the most distinctive aspect of the Dutch barn. Mortised, tenoned and pegged beams are arranged in "H"-shaped" units that recall church interiors, with columned aisles alongside a central space (here used for threshing). This interior arrangement, more than any other characteristic, links the Dutch barn with its Old World forebears. The ends of cross beams projecting through the columns are often rounded to form "tongues," a distinctive feature found only in the Dutch barn.

Relatively few Dutch barns survive. Most of these date from the late 18th century. Fewer yet survive in good condition, and almost none unaltered. Yet the remaining examples of this barn type still impress with the functional simplicity of their design and the evident pride the builders took in their work.

Bank Barns Bank Barns Bank Barns Bank Barns Bank Barns
The bank barn gets its name from a simple but clever construction technique: the barn is built into the side of a hill, thus permitting two levels to be entered from the ground. The lower level housed animals, the upper levels served as threshing floor and storage. The hillside entrance gave easy access to wagons bearing wheat or hay. (Fodder could also be dropped through openings in the floor to the stabling floor below.) The general form of the bank barn remained the same whether it was built into a hillside or not. Where a hill was lacking, a "bank" was often created by building up an earthen ramp to the second level.

Bank barns were ordinarily constructed with their long side, or axis, parallel to the hill, and on the south side of it. This placement gave animals a sunny spot in which to gather during the winter. To take further advantage of the protection its location afforded, the second floor was extended, or cantilevered, over the first. The overhang sheltered animals from inclement weather. The extended fore bay thus created is one of the most characteristic features of these barns. In some bank barns, the projecting beams were not large enough to bear the entire weight of the barn above. In these cases, columns or posts were added beneath the overhang for structural support.

In the earliest examples of bank barns narrow-end side walls are frequently stone or brick, with openings for ventilation. (Since "curing" green hay can generate enough heat to start a fire through spontaneous combustion, adequate ventilation in barns is vital.)

Crib Barns Crib Barns Crib Barns
Crib barns form another barn type significant in American agriculture. Found throughout the South and Southeast, crib barns are especially numerous in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountain States of North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. Composed simply of one, two, four or sometimes six cribs that served as storage for fodder or pens for cattle or pigs, crib barns may or may not have a hayloft above. Crib barns were typically built of un-chinked logs, although they were sometimes covered with vertical wood siding. Unaltered examples of early crib barns normally have roofs of undressed wood shingles. In time, shingle roofs were usually replaced with tin or asphalt. The rustic appearance of crib barns is one of their most striking features.

The cribs sometimes face a covered gallery or aisle running across the front. In another arrangement, the cribs are separated by a central driveway running through the building. This latter arrangement defines the double crib barn.

In double crib barns the second story hayloft is sometimes cantilevered over the ground floor, resulting in a barn of striking appearance.

Round Barns Round Barns Round Barns Round Barns
George Washington owned a round barn. And in 1826 the Shaker community at Hancock, Massachusetts, built a round barn that attracted considerable publicity.  Despite these early examples, however, round barns were not built in numbers until the 1880s, when agricultural colleges and experiment stations taught progressive farming methods based on models of industrial efficiency. From this time until well into the 1920s, round barns appeared on farms throughout the country, flourishing especially in the Midwest.

Round barns were promoted for a number of reasons. The circular form has a greater volume-to-surface ratio than the rectangular or square form. For any given size, therefore, a circular building will use fewer materials than other shapes, thus saving on material costs. Such barns also offer greater structural stability than rectangular barns. And because they can be built with self-supporting roofs, their interiors can remain free of structural supporting elements, thereby providing vast storage capabilities. The circular interior layout was also seen as more efficient, since the farmer could work in a continuous direction.

In general, multi-sided barns--frequently of 12 or 16 sides--are earlier than "true round" barns. Earlier examples also tend to be wood sided, while later ones tend to be brick or glazed tile. Interior layouts also underwent an evolution. Early round barns placed cattle stanchions on the first floor, with the full volume of the floor above used for hay storage. In later barns, the central space rose from the ground floor through the entire building. Cattle stanchions arranged around a circular manger occupied the lower level; the circular wagon drive on the level above permitted hay to be unloaded into the central mow as the wagon drove around the perimeter. In the last stage of round barn development, a center silo was added when silos became regular features on the farm (in the last decades of the nineteenth century). In some cases, the silo projected through the roof.

The claims for the efficiency of the round barn were overstated, and it never became the standard barn, as its proponents had hoped. Nevertheless, a great number were built, and many remain today the most distinctive farm structures in the communities in which they stand.

Prairie Barns Prairie Barns Prairie Barns Prairie Barns Prairie Barns
A peak roof projecting above a hayloft opening is one of the most familiar images associated with barns. The feature belongs to the prairie barn, also known as the Western barn. The larger herds associated with agriculture in the West and Southwest required great storage space for hay and feed. Accordingly, prairie barns are on average much larger than the other barns discussed in this brief.   Long, sweeping roofs, sometimes coming near the ground, mark the prairie barn; the extended roof created great storage space. (Late in the nineteenth century, the adoption of the gambrel roof enlarged the storage capacity of the haymow even more.)

Affinities of this barn type with the Dutch barn are striking: the long, low roof lines, the door in the gable end, and the internal arrangement of stalls in aisles on either side of the central space are all in the tradition of the Dutch barn.

Other Barn Types Other Barn Types Other Barn Types Other Barn Types Other Barn Types
The barn types discussed here are only some of the barns that have figured in the history of American agriculture. As with Dutch barns, some reflect the traditions of the people who built them: Finnish log barns in Idaho, Czech and German-Russian house barns in South Dakota, and "three bay" English barns in the northeast. Some, like the New England connected barn, stem from regional or local building traditions. Others reflect the availability of local building materials: lava rock (basalt) in south-central Idaho, logs in the southeast, adobe in California and the southwest. Others are best characterized by the specialized uses to which they were put: dairy barns in the upper mid west, tobacco barns in the east and southeast, hop-drying barns in the northwest, and rice barns in South Carolina. Other historic barns were built to patterns developed and popularized by land-grant universities, or sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company and other mail-order firms. And others fit no category at all: these barns attest to the owner's tastes, wealth, or unorthodox ideas about agriculture. All of these barns are also part of the heritage of historic barns found throughout the country.
*********** Technical Preservation Services, HPS, masthead; link to ParkNet

A note of thanks to the National Park Service for providing much of the information listed above.

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