From the colonial era, to the industrial revolution, America was mostly rural America. Nothing symbolized this period more than did the great American barn. This image endures, even as we enter the twenty-first century. From New England, the south, the Midwe, the Great Plains and the far west, the barns of rural America are testimony to the people who built them, and the times in which they lived.
All farm activities revolved around the barn. The barn served as factory, storage for the farmers’ implements, threshing house, shelter for the animals, and storage for their fodder. When settling new territory, the barn being critical for the survival of the agricultural enterprise, was often constructed before the house.
New England barns were often attached to the house. This enabled the farmer to tend his livestock even in the worst winter weather. As many New England farms were dairy operations, this all weather access was vital.
Crib barns were common in the south. Built with a central alleyway, the outer walls were constructed of logs without chinking. This method of construction made for good ventilation. Poorly ventilated barns were a fire hazard, as green hay could generate enough heat to spontaneously combust. These barns were constructed both with and without hay mows. The rustic appearances of these barns have enormous charm.
Round barns always drew attention. George Washington had one and the Shaker communities in New England were noted for them. The round barn design maximizes the ratio between storage area, and the materials needed to build the structure. “Round” barns were in fact, often eight, twelve or even sixteen sided structures. Possibly because farmers tended toward the traditional, this idea never fully caught on. Where these barns remain, they often enjoy a measure of fame within their respective communities.
The classic image of the American barn with its gambrel roof, overhead haymow, and nearby silo, is known as the prairie, or western barn. The prairie barns were often built to maintain large numbers of livestock, requiring a great deal of fodder storage. As such, they tended to be substantially larger than their eastern cousins.
A common variation on all barn styles is the ‘bank barn’. Barns of various designs were built into the side of a hill. Doing this allowed ‘drive in’ access on more than one level. Often, bank barns were built with longer sides than other barns. These barns were normally aligned with their short ends facing east and west. This allowed for a well sheltered, sunny area on the south side.
There is no standard for barn design. Clearly, traditional designs were modified to suit the particular needs of whatever new territory was being settled. Barns in the south and southeast were adapted to suit tobacco, rice and cotton. In the far west, barns were built of rugged log construction to withstand the harsh rocky mountain winters.
I find old barns, sheds, and houses enormously compelling, and I have hundreds of pictures to prove it. I cannot look at an abandoned farmstead without wondering about the lives of the people who lived there. Sadly, for those who love them, the American barn is rapidly disappearing. I have pictures of many barns that no longer exist. The nature of agriculture has changed forever, and the barn is no longer the most useful building on the farm. Many farms today have little or no livestock, and the barn has been eclipsed by the modern steel building. Modern buildings are clean, functional and require little maintenance. What these buildings lack, is soul. Farmers are often torn between their sentiment for a barn their grandfather built, and the expense of maintaining, and paying taxes on a structure having little practical use. One by one, they will all come down, never to be replaced. We will have lost something valuable, and our spirits will all be a little poorer for it.
Patrick Simons, photographer, philosopher, seeker and a wanderer.