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How Barns Have Evolved: Dutch, Crib, Bank, Round, & Prairie Barns

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, and communicate closeness to the land and community by 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 are often community landmarks and make the past present. Such buildings embody ethnic traditions and local customs; and they reflect changing farming practices and advances in building technology

Historic Barn Types

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 a 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. Their massive and simple appearance makes 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, ten oned and pegged beams are arranged in “H”-shaped” units similar to many 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 forbearers. 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. Few remain in good condition, and almost none are unaltered. Yet the remaining examples of this barn type are still impressive with the functional simplicity of their design and the evident pride the builders took in their work.

Bank Barns

The bank barn got its name from a simple, but clever, construction technique: Built into the side of a hill, the barn permits ground entries from two levels. The lower level housed animals, the upper levels served as a threshing floor and storage. The hillside entrance gave easy access to wagons bearing wheat or hay. The farmer could also drop fodder through openings in the floor to the stabling floor below. The general form of the bank barn remained the same whether or not it was actually built into a hillside. Where a hill was lacking, a farmer often created an earthen ramp to the second level.
The long side or axis of a bank barn is usually parallel to and on the south side of the hill. This placement gave animals a sunny spot to gather during the winter. To take further advantage of the protection its location afforded, the second floor extended, or cantilevered, over the first. The overhang sheltered animals from inclement weather. The extended fore bay 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 provide structural support for the overhang.

Most of the earliest examples of bank barns have narrow-end side walls of stone or brick, with openings for ventilation. “Curing” green hay can generate enough heat to start a fire through spontaneous combustion; therefore, adequate ventilation in the barns was vital.

Crib Barns

Crib barns are another significant barn type in American agriculture. They are found throughout the South and Southeast, and are especially numerous in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountain states of North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. Crib barns are composed of one to six cribs that served as storage for fodder or pens for cattle or pigs. The barns may or may not have a hayloft above. Crib barns were typically constructed with un-chinked logs, and sometimes covered with vertical wood siding. Most unaltered examples of early crib barns have undressed, wood shingle roofs. In time, tin or asphalt roofs replaced shingle roofs. The rustic appearance of crib barns is one of their most striking features.

The cribs often face a covered gallery or front aisle-way. In another arrangement, a central driveway separates the cribs. This latter arrangement defines the double crib barn.
In some double crib barns, the second story hayloft projects over the ground floor, resulting in a barn of striking appearance.

Round Barns

George Washington owned a round barn. In 1826, the Shaker community at Hancock, Massachusetts built a round barn that attracted considerable publicity. Despite these early examples, round barns were not numerous until the 1880s when agricultural colleges and experiment stations taught progressive farming methods based on models of industrial efficiency. From the late 1800’s until the 1920s, round barns appeared on farms throughout the country, 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. Therefore, a circular building uses fewer materials than other shapes, which saves on material costs. Round barns also offer greater structural stability than rectangular barns. With self-supporting roofs, round barn interiors can remain free of structural supporting elements, creating vast storage capabilities. Many believed the circular interior layout was more efficient because the farmer could work in a continuous direction.
There are examples of multi-sided barns — frequently of 12 or 16 sides — built before “true round” barns. Most early examples of round and multi-sided barns are 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. The last stage of round barn development features a center silo. Silos became regular features on the farm in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and this is reflected in barn design. In some cases, the silo projected through the roof of the round barn.

The claims for the efficiency of the round barn were overstated, and it never became the barn standard 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

A peak roof projecting above a hayloft opening is one of the most familiar images associated with barns. This feature belongs to the prairie barn, also known as the Western barn. The larger herds associated with agriculture in the West and Southwest required greater storage space for hay and feed. Therefore, prairie barns are usually much larger than other style barns. Long, sweeping roofs, sometimes coming near the ground, mark the prairie barn; the extended roof created greater 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

There are many other barn types 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. Some historic barns were built according to patterns developed and popularized by land-grant universities, or sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company and other mail-order firms. Still others fit no category at all, attesting to the owner’s tastes, wealth, or unorthodox ideas about agriculture. These barns are also part of the heritage of historic barns found throughout the country.

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