Barns are seen as a bit of Americana

This article submitted by Linda Stelling on 9/9/97.

Driving through the countryside, a person will see barns of all shapes and sizes. The type of farm will determine the type of barn.

The barns our ancestors erected are disappearing from the countryside and being replaced with single story structures which house hundreds of cows, pigs, chickens, or horses.

The number of Minnesota farms in 1997 at 87,000 remains unchanged from last year, compared to a drop of about 1,000 reported the previous year. As farms become less and less across the countryside, the old two-story barns are gradually disappearing.

At the turn of the century, barns were built to accommodate a menagerie of animals, a variety of farm equipment and crop. Whether used for storing grain, corralling livestock, stacking hay, or threshing wheat, barns were the heart of the working farm and have endured as the center of American rural life for nearly four centuries. Today, barns are specialized, housing only crops, equipment or animals.

As each generation passes, the barns are remodeled and adapted to meet the changing needs of the times. A barn which once housed horses on one end and cows on another end is now entirely filled with stanchions from end to end to contain cows for milking. In the newer farm operations, cows are milked in the in milking parlors not in their assigned stanchion.

Barns dominate country pastures depicting rural life as it has been for centuries. When early settlers made their way to America from Europe, they brought with them ideas about how a barn should appear and what materials and techniques it took to make one. These preconceived notions were based on what they learned and saw in their homelands. However, these settlers were also faced with a new climate, new building materials and new agricultural challenges that required a reassessment of their traditions from back home.

A barn is one of the largest single investments a farmer will ever make. It is the heart and soul of the farm economy and inherent part of the farmerís livelihood. Farmers think long and hard about their needs and finances before building.

From the beginning, many Pennsylvania barns were intentionally built into the side of a hill. It had several distinct advantages as its position, nestled into a hillside, provided insulation and protection from the weather. It also allowed easy access to the upper levels from the higher part of the land and in some cases a ramp led directly into the floor on the second level. Hay and other grains could be stored on the second level, while livestock occupied the space below. These barns are often called bank barns and can be found in the Paynesville area.

Barn builders often made large double doors on the short ends of the barn so that wagons could drive in one side and out the other in order to load or unload grain...or to make cleaning the barns easier.

New Englanders initially used simple, steep gable roofs on their barns that easily shed snow. Later, like their mid-Atlantic neighbors, they preferred the gambrel roof since it provided more space under the eaves. More room in the upper story is particularly important when livestock are housed below, since the farmer needs more room to store hay on the second level.

The round barn
Though today one or two round barns can be found in nearly every part of the country, and the midwest now boasts more round barns than any other region, the earliest examples come from New England. The most famous is the circular barn constructed in 1824 in the Shaker colony of Hancock, Mass. This round stone structure, draws visitors from all over. Inside, animal stalls radiate outward from the center like wedges of a giant pie.

In addition to its picturesque qualities, the round barn has its practical side. Its shape allows the farmer to maximize interior while minimizing exterior walls. Hay placed in the center of the circle is accessible to the farm animals in the stalls radiating from the center.

Folklore tales across America recounted that round barns even had the power to ward off evil. These stories were based on the widely held superstition that the devil could literally ďcorner youĒ in a building with angles. There are no corners in a round barn, so people and animals were therefore safe from any demonic activity.

Despite its efficient use of space and its aesthetic properties, the round barn failed to win widespread appeal, and remains a rare curiosity in the American landscape.

Barn decorations
Throughout American history, enormous barns have provided a perfect vehicle for artists, who envisioned on the sides of the barn brightly painted hex signs, fanciful carvings, engaging images, popular sayings, graffiti, dates and more.

Today, artists paint fascinating paintings on the sides of barns, providing the illusion of a landscape or a farming scene; sometimes fake windows are painted to resemble real ones. Pictures of horses, cows, pigs and farmers are also common. In the nineteenth century, barns were used for tobacco and medicinal ads, and occassional religious messages.

Information obtained from ďAmerican LandmarksóThe BarnĒ by Laura Brooks.

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