Since our nation’s dawn, barns (and the farmers they represent) have figured large in American philosophy. Thomas Jefferson understood that the newly minted republic derived its freedom and stability from citizen farmers. Lincoln passed the Homestead Act, writing, “The wild lands of the country should be distributed so that every man should have the means and opportunity of benefiting his condition.” In other words, Lincoln saw farms as a way to give every American a fair chance. And Eisenhower celebrated that “In no other country do so few people produce so much food, to feed so many, at such reasonable prices.” Throughout our history, barns have represented close-knit communities with strong ties to the land and to family. Nowadays, although fewer Americans make their living at farming, barns still resonate as powerful symbols of a simpler, more traditional way of life. As such, barns have become popular locations for events, such as weddings.
Unfortunately, barn razing has eclipsed the barn raisings that were so common in America a century ago. Older barns may be derided as eyesores in various stages of decay. Yet these historic structures deserve our attention and preservation efforts because they embody our nation’s rich, historical past.
Here we offer a little background on the types of classic barns in the United States.
Classic American Barn Types
The earliest American barns are Dutch barns. Few have survived in their original layout. You can spot a Dutch barn by its simple, massive-looking exterior, with a wide gable roof; simple, horizontal clapboard siding; a pent roof to provide protection at a central entry; and stock doors at the corners. The interior of a Dutch barn is reminiscent of a church, with a central aisle, H-shaped beam structures, and mortise-and-tenon joints with rounded ends. When well preserved, Dutch barns are stunning in their simplicity and strength.
Perhaps the cleverest American barn design is the bank barn, which takes advantage of a slope to create multiple levels of productivity. Traditionally, a bank barn was built with the longest side running parallel to a slope. That way, livestock could be housed on the lower level, at the bottom of the hill. Oftentimes, this “daylight basement” level faced south, and provided a protected space where animals gathered in the winter months. The second story was level with the top of the hill, and allowed wagons carrying hay or wheat easy access for threshing and storage. Early bank barns feature stone sidewalls, with ventilation apertures to prevent fire. (While curing, green hay can produce enough heat to combust spontaneously.)
George Washington’s sixteen-sided barn at Mount Vernon is representative of the round barn’s appeal. Round barns are efficient, in that they require fewer materials to create the same amount of storage. Washington’s high-tech barn was tailor made for efficient threshing. Horses would run around a central column while stomping on wheat, working the grain out. Gaps between floorboards on the first level allowed the grain to fall through to a lower story, where it could be gathered for storage. Compared to rectangular barns, circular barns are also more stable. A final advantage is that round barns may be built with self-supporting roofs, eliminating the need for interior supports and increasing storage space.
Prairie barns, crib barns, and house barns are additional American barn types. Barn structures reflect local crops; tobacco barns with gable-on-hip roofs are common in the southeastern U.S., while dairy barns are found throughout the Midwest. Building materials vary according to location as well; Idaho barns may be built of basalt (a volcanic stone), while the Southwest boasts adobe barns. The variety of barns in our country reflects our nation’s cultural and geological diversity.
Unfortunately, as Americans move away from the country, many barns are being abandoned. A 2007 USDA census of farmers making more than $1,000 of farm income annually found that there are about 650,000 barns left in America. There are problems with this survey—it doesn’t include barns that are being used for other purposes, for one thing—but it does suggest that the number of American barns has dropped since 1950, when National Barn Alliance president Charles Leik estimates that there were 6 million barns still standing in our country.
For barn enthusiasts, one encouraging trend is the growing interest in barn homes. As dedicated barn home builders, we appreciate the growing popularity in barns with living quarters attached. The barn portion of the structure is often included on the ground floor, while living quarters are situated above.
If you’re interested in contributing to the number of barns in America, contact us. We build custom barn designs, including horse barns and barns with living quarters. We can work with you to create a custom plan to perfectly fit your needs. And we are happy to work with you to include design features that echo America’s rich barn history.
[Mt. Vernon Barn Photo by Matt Howry via CC License]