It was a beautiful summer day, drier than most July in the East. I was driving through eastern Pennsylvania on a business trip, enjoying the open highway before me. As I passed through towns along the roadway, I noticed the scenery was becoming more rural. It wasn’t long before great, green expanses lay on either side of the highway. Every few minutes, a magnificent barn would come into view, rising above the landscape and punctuating the sky with its gabled roof and proud silo. The glory of these old barns was breathtaking, leaving me to realize the power of this very American piece of architecture.
Throughout American history, farmers have built barns to shelter their livestock and store their harvest. A great number of barn styles can be seen throughout the United States, each suited to the environment where it resides.
“The design of a barn, especially if it is very old, is bound with the weather requirements of the area and the particular cultural traditions of the farmers in the region,” says Nancy W. Ambrosiano, co-author of Complete Plans for Building Horse Barns Big & Small (Breakthrough Publishing, 2006). “A steeply peaked roof, for example, is relevant to regions with considerable snowfall since the weight of snow can bring a barn down. Such peaks only capture heat in the hotter, humid South, so while they’ll still have a slope to shed rain and snow, more southerly barns add variations for ventilation such as the airy ‘monitor’ barns that ensure a breeze from floor to ceiling through the monitor’s vents.”
American farmers built their barns with not only practicality in mind, but also aesthetics. These barns were functional and their distinct looks provided a sense of identity to the regional farmlands on which they stood. Certain barn styles have become synonymous with particular parts of the country; in many cases they are considered historic reminders of the area’s agricultural past.
1. Bank Barns
The Midwest is home to the bank barn, a rectangular building with two levels. Traditionally, the lower level of the barn housed livestock and draft animals, while the upper level provided storage and a threshing floor. Both areas can be entered from the ground.
So named because the buildings were situated against the side of a hill, bank barns, most of which were built in the 1800s, permitted farmers direct access to the storage area with wagons loaded with wheat or hay. When built in an area where a hill was not present, a “bank” was created by building an earthen ramp.
The earliest bank barns featured gabled roofs, while later bank barns were built with gambrel roofs. Bank barns were primarily constructed with their axis parallel to the hill on the south side; this allowed livestock to have a sunny spot to gather in the winter. To take advantage of this protection, the second story is extended over the first; the overhang sheltered animals from harsh weather.
In certain areas of Wisconsin, where glaciers once moved during the Ice Age, bank barns were constructed with fieldstones. In non-glaciated areas of the state, primarily southwestern Wisconsin, the barn walls were made of quarried rock. In other areas of the country, bank barns were built from wood.
2. Round and Polygonal Barns
Round or polygonal barns, first built by the Shakers in the 1800s, are the rarest of barn types in terms of numbers and are scattered from New England to the Midwest. Although constructed in the early 19th century, these barns became popular during the 1880s when experiment stations and agricultural colleges taught progressive farming methods based on their great efficiency.
Round barns were encouraged for many reasons: circles have greater volume-to-surface ratios than other barn forms (square or rectangular), therefore they use less materials and save on cost. Also, they offer greater structural stability because they are built with self-supporting roofs, which also opens vast storage space. The circular layout was viewed as more efficient—a claim that was overstated, demonstrated in the lack of round barns today.
In the final stage of round-barn development, a center silo was added, allowing gravity to move feed from the barn’s top level to the floor. Made from wood or occasionally brick, round and polygonal barns typically housed cattle on the ground floor and hay in the loft above.
3. Tobacco Barns
Seen throughout the South and East, tobacco barns served a unique function when first erected nearly four centuries ago. Their role was to provide a place for tobacco farmers to hang and dry their crop after harvest.
These barns are heavily ventilated because air flow was needed to cure the hanging tobacco leaves. Multiple vents are typical of tobacco barns, which can be seen in different styles depending on the type of tobacco, the time period when tobacco became a crop in the area and local building styles, such as conventional tobacco barns that have long, vertical doors that open along the sides. They are made from oak, poplar or other regional timber.
4. English Barns
One of the first barn styles built in the states, English barns were a simple and popular design in New England during Colonial times, particularly in Vermont.
Reminiscent of barns in England, the English barn is usually small and rectangular in shape with an A-frame roof. These barns were traditionally made from wood, are not usually more than 30×40 feet in size and feature hinged wagon doors. The barn was usually located on level ground with no basement and unpainted, vertical boards on the walls.
The interior of the English barn has a center aisle and threshing floor. Livestock were kept on one side of the barn while feed was stored on the other.
5. Dutch Barns
Dutch barns are among the oldest and rarest American barns and are known for their broad, gabled roofs, corner stock doors, clapboarding and center wagon doors.
Popular in New York and New Jersey in the 1700s, these barns have a distinctive, H-shaped structure, which provided a rigid core to support the broad, gabled roof and walls. They feature a spacious center aisle with a plank floor for unloading wagons and for grain threshing.
The Dutch-style half doors were situated to allow prevailing winds to disperse chaff when threshing on the barn floor. A pent roof (or pentice) over the center doors gave protection from the elements. Flanking animal doors at the corners and holes near the roof to admit swallows and martins are typical Dutch barn elements.The side aisles were used to house cattle and draft animals, as well as to store feed and hay.
Unlike most other barns, the internal structure of the Dutch barn is relatively protected from the elements and can often survive exterior decay.
6. Crib Barns
Common in the South, crib barns are most often seen in the mountainous areas of North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. The name of this barn comes from the one to six cribs built inside the structure for storage or for housing livestock. Smaller crib barns were used exclusively for feed storage.
Crib barns were built primarily in the 1800s and were most often made from unchinked logs occasionally covered with wood siding and wood-shingled, gabled roofs. Crib barns with roofs that were later replaced can be seen with tin or asphalt coverings. “Double-crib” barns feature a second-story loft; they were the simplest barn to build for their size and stability.
Similar to dog-trot houses, the double-crib barn, commonly found in Appalachia, consists of two cribs separated by a breezeway and covered by a single roof. The doors could either face front or toward the breezeway. The first story was used for stabling with the breezeway, usually used for grain threshing. The second story loft was used for hay and grain storage.
7. Prairie Barns
One of the most common barns in the American landscape, prairie barns (also called Western barns, one of which is pictured above), were the barn of choice for farmers in the West and Southwest because large livestock herds required great storage space for hay and grain.
These large, wooden barns provided plenty of storage space for feed and could house livestock if necessary. Long roofs that often reach nearly to the ground created ample space; these barns were built throughout the 1800s as agriculture spread westward. The prairie barn is similar to the Dutch barn with regards to the long, low rooflines and the internal arrangements of animal enclosures on either side of a central, open space.