There's More Than Meets the Eye on
Stories from the Road:
As we travel the Interstates, we’ll often spot barns—among the most picturesque features of the rural landscape. These days most of us don’t have first-hand experience with a family barn so we might not realize what we’re seeing in these stately old structures.
First of all, our word, “barn,” comes from an ancient Anglo-Saxon term meaning, “barley place.” That is, a place to store your barley. Barley was a staple in the diet of early England so you needed a place to keep it. Hence the barn, where you stored barley and other grains. English barns had a center section with doors opening on either side. The center section is where the grain was threshed, that is, the grain was separated from the chaff by pounding on it. Then the wind would blow through the two open doors of the center section, carrying away the lighter seed coverings and leaving behind the heavier seeds.
When settlers arrived in North America with the intention to farm, the first building they constructed on their land was likely to be the barn; it was the most important structure. The family might live either in the barn, itself, or in a cabin thrown together when they first began clearing the land. Only after a few harvests had come in would the family feel secure enough to build other permanent structures on the property.
Early American barns were not carefully designed structures. They were built quickly by the family and maybe—if they were lucky—with the help of a few neighbors. These barns were designed for functionality, not with the view that they might someday appear on postcards, calendars and jigsaw puzzles. The builders didn’t have plans or drawings to work from so they drew upon their memory of barns from ancestral homes in Europe or from local practices that had built up in their community. Americans of English ancestry built English barns with the three bays or rooms, the center bay having been used in earlier times to thresh the grain. By the time of American settlement, much of the threshing was done by machine, yet they continued to build this three-bayed barn. Hence, the English barn, the predominant type of barn built before the year 1900 in the Northeast United States.
Other nationalities brought their own memories of what a barn should look like. So the Dutch constructed barns with gambrel roofs, that is, with a flat top and a shorter pitch on either side. These allowed for more storage space on the upper level than a roof with a straight peak. Americans of German descent constructed barns with an earthen foundation and a ramp running up to the second floor. While the Virginians who moved west created barns modeled after those on plantations in the South. Barns varied also by materials used in construction. So we find barns with stone foundations where there are stones easily available while simpler wooden structures are more common on the American plains.
With these different styles of barn architecture, you could make a pretty good guess as to the national heritage of a barn builder—until about 1900, when standardized barns became available. In some areas, skilled workers went into the business of building and repairing barns. They traveled from community to community, farm to farm, plying their trade. Or farmers could order a barn kit from the Sears Roebuck catalog—sort of a barn in a box—while state extension services also provided architectural plans for building one’s own barn.
From that time on the differences in design became more a matter of choice or style than of ethnic heritage. As we drive along the Interstates today, we’ll see barns of different ages, different styles, different building materials, different colors. Among the older barns there will be examples of English barns, German or Pennsylvania barns, and Dutch barns. We’ll see barns with silos, that is, the rounded structures on the side used to store grain. Sometimes we’ll even see a silo standing alone with no barn in sight. What that usually means is that the silo—the early ones were built with stone or brick—outlasted the wooden barn. The barn collapsed or burned down; the silo remained.
As we drive past barns, we might note common features, no matter what the style or ethnic origin. Such as, built into the peak of the roof on the gable end, there is often an extension which might be a simple pole or a more complex structure. That’s a “hay hood” whose original purpose was to support a pulley attachment to hoist hay up to the second story and load it into the loft. We still find hay hoods on barns that don’t store any hay—like , for example, those housing gift shops. The hay hood has become part of the design of a barn even when there’s no remaining practical function.
Windows can tell you something about a barn. For one, they suggest the age. As a general rule, the fewer the windows, the older the barn. Old barns, particularly English barns, were built without windows. It wasn’t until the mid 19th century, that glass became affordable. Then a few windows were added here and there until we get to modern barns, which often have rows of regularly spaced windows. Sometimes, you’ll see a barn with haphazardly placed windows. A likely explanation is that this barn was built without windows, and then later—when the farmer could afford the glass—windows were cut into the existing structure.
Another feature of barns we’ll sometimes see is a small structure built on top of the roof—in the center at the peak. Maybe there’s one of them right in the middle, maybe there’s a row of three or maybe even five. Sometimes this structure on the roof is rectangular and wooden, sometimes metal and circular. Some will be quite ornate, bringing a sense of dignity to the lowly barn. Others will be strictly utilitarian.
What are they? They’re called cupolas, and no matter what the design, the function is the same: ventilation. Hay is subject to spontaneous combustion: it will heat up and catch fire of its own accord. Ventilation helps keep it from getting too hot. Similarly, farm animals and people need to keep cool on hot days. In earlier times, cupolas served another function for a struggling farm family on the frontier. They attracted pigeons: meat for the dinner table during a lean period.
One more thing: do barns remind you of any other type of structure? They’re not like houses. Houses are broken up into rooms, living spaces—the interior of barns contain more open space—particularly the center area where you can usually see all the way to the roof. Barns often have high peaked roofs, maybe with an ornate cupola at the top. And they have a way of directing your sight up, vertically, toward the heavens.
What other building type shares these characteristics? A church. An old church and an old barn often look similar to each other, outside and inside. Some conjecture that when Europeans began building churches, they looked to the barn for a model. The barn provided a way of designing the large open spaces necessary for a gathering of worshippers. Others insist it’s the other way around: that barns are modeled after churches. Whatever. Both churches and barns lend a sense of history and dignity to the land.
Museum of the Open Road, Inc
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