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The American Barn: A Disappearing American Icon
By Kate Kelly

When we catch sight of a barn often from a distant highway, the rustic building generally reminds us of what we think of as a simpler life—a life most of us know only through television or movies.  Sadly, many of these barns are falling into disrepair or being knocked down as more and more land is developed.

Yet with the demise of the American barn, we lose a part of our story.  In many ways, early barns were more important than houses because without an agricultural building to protect the animals or the crops, early settlers had few ways to survive.

Barns varied in style and purpose but there was one element they all shared—each was built with common sense, purpose, and economy foremost in every farmer’s mind.

Looking at Barns
“The types of barns that were built varied based on the settlers’ country of origin,” says Howard P. Mock, a Chicago-based architect, preservationist, and an environmental and climate change advocate. “People brought their ideas from their home country and that was what they built in America.”
This practice was rooted in the fact that there were no blueprints or guide books for building barns. Knowledge of barn-building passed from generation to generation, so people built what they knew from their background.
Mock’s love and respect for barns grew from his childhood when the family visited Pennsylvania relatives who still lived on farms. From an early age, Mock was able to clamber around barns and appreciate their efficiency.   In his professional career, he has planned, designed, restored, renovated, and built barns and many barn-like structures over the past 25 years. As a hobby, he photographs these rapidly disappearing icons of America’s rural past.
Just as barns varied by where their builders came from, they also varied depending on their purpose.  Says Mock: “What we think of as a classic barn with the gambrel roof is a dairy barn but there were smaller barnlike structures for sheep and goats as well as for chickens. In addition, some barns were built just for crop storage—ranging from grains to tobacco.”
Geographic location of the farm resulted in certain necessary adaptations. For example, Mock points out that the height of the barn roof—and therefore the storage capacity of the hayloft—had to do with the expectations for winter weather. In places like Wisconsin or New England the roofs extended higher in order to store more hay.  In the South where cattle were more likely to be kept outside and storage of their food was less necessary, the barns themselves stored produce or tobacco and the roofs were much lower.
The Pennsylvania Dutch arrived with ideas for barns that were very well-suited for the hilly terrain of western Pennsylvania.  They built what were called “bank barns.”  The barn was built against a hill, and the hayloft could be accessed from the hillside. [Reader correction: Bank barns were developed in Southeastern Pennsylvania by the German and English settlers long before western Pennsylvania was settled.] Wagons could drive right in to drop off the hay; no hayfork or rope and pulley system required.  The animals entered the barn from the other, lower side of the barn where their doorway brought them directly into the main floor.  It created a very efficient loading and unloading system.

Hay, of course, was delivered to the animals via gravity and a little human effort.  A farmhand climbed up to the hayloft and tossed down the appropriate amount of hay for the animals each day.

Building a Barn
The site selected for the barn was always close to a water source. Farmers soon found that by building a small stone structure—called a spring house–around the water source, it benefitted them in two ways: The water remained clean because it was covered, and by creating an enclosed dark place, the water kept temperatures cooler so milk could be stored there.  Eventually wood or metal pipes carried water to the barns in a very early form of outdoor plumbing.

While the depiction of barn raising in movies always seems to feature cheerful people singing and staying around for a dance that night, this fictionalized version of barn-raising is not too far from the truth.  Barns were a big project that required help from many willing volunteers and the process needed to go quickly so that everyone could get back to their own farms.  While the singing and dancing may or may not have happened, the neighbors were almost certainly delighted to see each other and share news. Women came along to cook and the children played and helped where they could.
The frame of the barn had to be built on the ground as that permitted accurate measurements and soundness before the first wall was put up.
Howard Mock explains that they didn’t have milled lumber to work with so they used whatever species of wood was available in the area.  Ideally the height of the plank from the tree was tall enough to reach where the builders wanted the roof line so planks could be placed vertically. After the walls went up, the roof was added.

In Eric Sloane’s excellent book, An Age of Barns, Sloane writes that larger farms might hire a framer to come in to lay out the frame.  Neighbors would still be needed to help lift up the four framed sides of the barn. On a bigger structure like this, the odds were that the neighbors would help for a couple of days and then leave much of the finishing work for the farmer and any workers he employed.

Form Followed Function
In early New England, barns were frequently attached to the farm house. (Settlers who came very early to establish farms would likely have started out living in a portion of the barn to benefit from the warmth generated by the animals.) Later, they used a covered passageway to connect the house with the barn and some other outlying buildings. Then the family could feed the animals, milk the cows and take care of other chores without having to go through a storm or drifts of snow.
Barns were sized for what they were to contain.  Those that housed cows and stored hay up above were larger than those that were for sheep or goats or were built for storing specific crops.  Tobacco barns in the South varied from other barn designs because the tobacco needed to be hung across racks in well-ventilated space where the air came through and helped dry out the crop.  Later these barns were set up for fire-and-heat drying, which meant the design needed to be changed to a functional enclosure that permitted the heat, and the space needed to be as airtight as possible.
Ventilation was always important, both for animals and for grain. (Grain could explode if it was packed too tightly and the sun beat down on the building for a time.) Vents under the eaves were common, but some barns had slits running vertically along the walls for air; others had cupolas for the same reason.  Stone barns featured star-shaped designs that were for ventilation.
These openings served another purpose: owls could come in during the day and roost in the rafters.  Farmers welcomed the owls as they helped keep the mouse population down.
Doors were another well-planned part of a barn.  Some barns featured smaller side doors, but the doors that permitted animals and wagons or trucks to enter had to be larger.  Sliding doors became popular because then the farmer need not swing open a wide door and let in a rush of cold air.  The ”X” design of white boards across barn doors is there for the very practical purpose of making the barn door stronger.
Barns frequently got hit by lightning so the lightning rod was a key element.  Mock points out that after coping with lots of lightning hits, farmers began adding a glass globe to the top of the lightning rod.  If the rod was hit, the globe slid down the lightning rod and broke.  This warned the family to survey for damage after a storm.  Today those globes are in high demand by collectors.

Barn Color
The color of barns varied by region but it all stems from practicality and cost. In the eastern part of the country, iron oxide, a reddish color, was available and acted a wood preservative and an insecticide.  As farmers moved west, whitewash from milk paint was more easily available. Even further west in states like Colorado and Texas, you find the brown horse barns, and the wood on those barns were treated the same preservative being used on railroad ties.

As roads began to circle the farmland, farmers found they could make some extra income by letting companies paint advertisements on the roofs and walls of the barn.  For a company it was easier to do this than to get permission to erect a billboard.

The Barns that Remain
While New England’s tighter spaces mean that more of the original style of barns still exist and are in use there, in regions with more open land, the barns that are being built today are gigantic and unrecognizable from any other factory-type building.  Dairy barns today are totally automated and might house at least 2000 cows with a schedule for continuous milking.  This is a far remove from farm life of the past. While saving buildings simply for the sake of saving them is pointless, we all benefit from times when a barn can be modified for adaptive re-use as a museum, a home, a restaurant or an office complex.

Today an organization, the National Barn Alliance, operates nationwide to coordinate preservation efforts to save America’s historic barns.  For more information about how to join their effort or to preserve a specific barn in your area, visit their website.

Footnote: The thought of a 2000-cow barn sounded so inhumane I looked around to see if there were efforts to make life happier for cows. Indeed, Cornell has a program that is featured in Modern Farmer.  They are experimenting with a dairy barn that doesn’t sound like a “farm of old,” but it does sound more desirable for a cow than the mechanized 2000-cow operations.