Barn Styles in American History
American barn styles evolved as people migrated west, creating the Prairie barn, Western barn and Saltbox barn, among others
Limestone block sidewalls have done much to keep this barn standing. Clay and gravel fill allow entry to the second level from the far side.
Photo by Gary Van Hoozer
Nothing stands prouder than a well-maintained barn. But like many antiques, more than a few barns have been lost due to neglect.
Maintenance costs and obsolescence are natural enemies of barns. However, preservation efforts are increasing. Barns are seeing new uses as shops, restaurants, bed-and-breakfast inns and museums.
In the beginning: American barn styles
Early in American history, basically three barn styles were used: the Pennsylvania Dutch, Jamestown colonists barns, and barns of New England, such as the saltbox. Differences resulted from availability of building materials and individual builders’ quirks.
Some barns were built for specific purposes: horse breeding, dairy farming, cattle feeding, drying tobacco and livery barns. As the westward migration gained strength, barns in the Midwest and West developed their own style. Although they echoed Eastern styles, the Western barn, Prairie barns and Pennsylvania Standard reflected the rancher’s different needs.
Added to those were unique entries, such as the variant of the Pennsylvania standard called the “Yankee version” and the round barn.
The Prairie barn and Western barn most prevalent in Midwest and West
The tall “Prairie” barn was the most common barn in the Midwest and West. Built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Prairie barns were large enough to house draft animals, milk cows and hay (stored in a loft overhead).
Prairie barns were generally of frame construction with gambrel roofs, though some featured a curved roof called a “gothic.” Such barns typically sat on a foundation of stone or concrete, with sidewalls of stone for the bottom four to five feet.
“Western” style barns became more popular as settlers moved to the Plains. These tall, frame barns had extremely sharp-pitched “saddles” (gabled roofs).
Both Prairie and Western barns had a large hay door opening into the haymow, and a rain hood (or overhang) above the door. Inside, along the ridgepole, ran a track which extended out along the hood from which a hayfork was dropped to lift hay from a wagon to the loft. Both barn types usually had an enclosed granary.
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