Barn Toppers: A Unique Collection of Capolas

Richard Mayers' collection of barn toppers honers underrated relics.

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Opposite page: A LaCrosse cupola towers over a Butler (right) and an unknown model (left). All three are displayed at the Albany Pioneer Grounds at Albany, Minn.

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It was the kind of mission that must have made Richard Mayers wish he collected watch fobs or ephemera or even salesman's samples. But Richard, who lives in Albany, Minn., collects barn cupolas, and when he heard of a three-cupola deal just 60 miles away, he jumped on it.

He got the first two loaded in his truck, but the third - a huge LaCrosse - wouldn't fit. "I didn't want to drive another 120 miles to get it, so I told the guy I'd take the two for the same money. He said, 'If you don't take that big one today, you can't take any. It's all three, or none. Get that big one out of here.' Turns out, it's one of my best cupolas, though I was going to leave it at first. Somebody offered $800 for my LaCrosse. But, at 5 feet 2 inches at the base and 13 feet 6 inches high to the point, it's too big to find another."

Cupola collectors are used to tales like that. Though they're huge, the barn toppers often escape attention. However, Richard has an eye (and a passion) for them. He knows the brands, the differences and the locations where he's spotted unusual cupolas. His passion extends to lightning rods and balls, directionals, wind vanes, arrows and pendants, all once attached to cupola roofs.

Unlike those attachments, cupolas were more about function than form. The cupola was designed to vent hot air from the barn in winter, and moisture in the summer. The taller the cupola, the greater a vacuum it created and the more drawing power.

Richard started collecting cupolas 25 years ago. "I was trying to come up with the next collectible item," he recalls. "At one auction, I saw two big cupolas for sale, for $9 and $13. I figured the buyers paid way too much. On the way home, I thought, 'You want something nobody else collects. Yet, you just passed up two cupolas that could have been a hundred years old, but you wouldn't pay $22. Wrong.' Next time I went to an auction, I started buying cupolas." Today Richard has between 50 and 60 cupolas.

ONE SPECTACULAR LIGHTNING ROD, THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK (NAMED BECAUSE OF ITS SIX SEPARATE TINES), DATES TO THE CIVIL WAR AND IS VALUED AT NEARLY $1,000.

CZECH SCIENTIST PROKOP DIVIS INVENTED A LIGHTNING ROD AT THE SAME TIME bEN FRANKLIN WAS CONDUCTING ELECTRICAL EXPERIMENTS IN THE 1750s. FRANKLIN ADVOCATED A SHARP LIGHTNING ROD, WHILE ENGLISH AND EUROPEAN MODELS FEATURED BLUNT TIPS.

While his collection is substantial, the body of knowledge surrounding antique cupolas remains slim. "There is surprisingly little information about the actual names of the cupola companies, other than proper names," says Richard.

First from wood …

The earliest cupolas were made of wood. If a carpenter expected to build three barns the next summer, during the winter he'd build the cupolas. When the barn was mostly finished, its cupola would be lifted high in the air and then lowered over a prepared hole in the roof. An opening the size of the cupola was cut into the roof, and the finished piece was fitted and attached to the barn's rafters. Great skill was needed to build six-sided and gabled wood cupolas.

Many pieces are marked by craftsmanship rarely seen today. "I have a wooden cupola from near Fort Ripley, Minn., with three-way joints so close-cut you can't shove a playing card between them," Richard says. "The carpenter cut each piece by hand with miter box, at a 45-degree angle. That cupola weighed more than 500 pounds." Beneath layers of steel and asphalt shingles, he uncovered original wooden shingles and steel nails.

Some of the best wood cupolas Richard's seen are on barns near Bellingham, Minn., just east of Waterton, S.D. "You can almost see the signature of the carpenter who built them," he says. "Drive around Bellingham with binoculars, and you'll see cupolas made by the same guy. All sides are louvered, whether four, six, even eight sides."

… Evolving to steel

The first metal cupolas were made by a blacksmith, fitted and then screwed together. By 1910, most cupolas were manufactured of steel. The King Co., in Minneapolis, and the James Co., first in Fort Atkinson, Wis., and later in Minneapolis, were among the earliest cupola manufacturers.

The Butler cupola was legendary for its construction. "Butler made cupolas so solid a tornado couldn't take them from a barn," Richard says. "Built square, Butlers fit tight into the barn rafters. They used steel twice the gauge of a King: You can't push out a dent on a Butler like you can on a King. The Butler (made in Minneapolis) is the strongest cupola."

BECAUSE LIGHTNING WAS ONCE CONSIDERED A TOKEN OF DIVINE DISPLEASURE, CONSERVATIVE BELIEVERS SPURNED "HEATHEN LIGHTNING RODS." LATER, IT WAS ARGUED THAT HAY CREATED HEAT, WHICH ATTRACTED ELECTRICITY. THUS, A GOOD VENTILATOR WOULD REPEL LIGHTNING. FARMERS WHO HAD PREVIOUSLY REFUSED LIGHTNING RODS THEN ACCEPTED CUPOLAS AS VENTILATORS.

YANKEE FARMERS ADAPTED CUPOLA DESIGNS FROM CATHEDRAL DOMES, CALLING A BARN CUPOLA "A ROOF OVER A HOLE IN THE ROOF." EACH FARMER'S DESIGN REFLECTED HIS INDIVIDUAL STYLE, COMBINING ART AND UTILITY.

Because of their bulk, and the expense of shipping by rail, cupolas were often manufactured close to home, as in the case of units built in LaCrosse, Wis., and Pierz, Minn. The Chief Co., in Iowa, made steel cupolas, as did the Clay Co. and Hudson Co. The units were shipped in pieces and assembled on delivery. Depending on the brand, steel cupolas ranged from 18 inches high and 14-16 inches across, to 12 feet, 6 inches high and about 5 feet across.

Dressing up the barn

Richard is equally fond of cupola attachments: lightning rods, balls, wind vanes or arrows, directionals (fixed indicators of N-S-E-W directions) and pendants (ornamental glass pieces hung from lightning rod holders). "The oldest cupola I've seen, probably from the 1880s, had a wrought-iron lightning rod coming out of the peak," he says. "To make it, iron was heated in a forge and pounded on an anvil."

Fine workmanship is a defining characteristic. "If you see 25 lightning rods and 12 are the same length, you could be almost positive those 12 were made by the same person," Richard says. "Many companies made components for lightning rods and most put their name on them. Each carpenter used brands he liked best. With lightning rod paraphernalia, you know doggone well that when you have different components, you're dealing with a different carpenter."

The add-ons were largely cosmetic. "The barn was the farmer's pride and joy," says Richard. "Almost everybody put directionals, weather vanes and animal silhouettes on their barns. There wasn't scientific reason for lightning rod balls: When lightning hit, the balls broke. There wasn't any reason for pendants either, but they made the barn look nice. Pendants were like earrings: They dressed the barn up and matched your personality."

The iron or copper stand supporting the lightning rod could be embellished with twined legs, scroll tops and pendants. Balls came in hundreds of sizes, shapes and colors. Instead of an animal silhouette, farmers might choose an arrow from the cupola company or one with a kite-shaped or rectangular glass flag.

Given his passion for cupolas and the arrows, balls and rods that embellish them, Richard always keeps an eye out whenever he's driving. "I go around with my neck all cricked up to spot these things," he says.

For more information: - Richard Mayers, Albany Antique Center, 740 Railroad Ave., Albany, MN 56307; (320) 845-2526 (home); (320) 333-2526 (cell).

Nikki Rajala is a retired teacher. Now working as a freelance writer, she is the author of articles published in Belt Pulley magazine, Listen magazine and Instructor magazine. Contact her at Box 372 Rockville, MN 56369, (320) 253-5414; e-mail: nrajala@juno.com

COLONIAL FARMERS USED A WIND VANE OR WIND FLAG, A CLOTH STREAMER OR LIGHT PINE OR CEDAR TRIANGLE MADE TO SWING IN THE SLIGHTEST MOVEMENT OF AIR. THE WORD "VANE" COMES FROM AN ANGLO-SAXON WORD "FANE," MEANING "FLAG."

A HORSE SILHOUETTE FOR A WIND ARROW ORIGINALLY COST $2.35, AND LIGHTNING ROD BALLS RANGED FROM 45 CENTS TO $1. IN RECENT YEARS, PENDANTS ESPECIALLY HAVE INCREASED IN VALUE, IN PART BECAUSE OF THEIR RELATIVE SCARCITY. PENDANTS TENDED TO TRAP MOISTURE, MAKING THEM LIKELY TO SHATTER IN FREEZE-AND-THAW CYCLES. ONCE SOLD FOR AS LITTLE AS $2.25 EACH, MINT-CONDITION PENDANTS FETCH $200-500 TODAY.