Rural New England: Architecture in the Round

Unique New England structures include Massachusetts' round stone barn, and Vermont's one-room schoolhouse and non-denominational church

Non-denominational church

This barn is noted as being the first large round stone barn built in this country. It's a Shaker round stone barn that is now part of the Hancock Shaker Village Museum (actually in Hancock, Mass, but served by Pittsfield, Mass.). It was used as a prototype by other farmers and promoted by several agricultural colleges, resulting in construction of round barns in most of the states and in Canada.

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Engine magazines are devoted to old round gears, flywheels, band wheels, bull wheels, and drive wheels and they are interesting; however, a change now and then reates thought – especially if they are old, odd, rural and round. So read on about a few New England oddities and the persons related thereto:

  • The round stone barn near Pittsfield, Mass., designed and built in 1825-26 by a group of (at that time) advanced agriculturalists and proud craftsmen.
  • At Brookline, Vermont, a round schoolhouse designed and built in 1821-22 by a local well-respected medical doctor with a hidden past.
  • At Richmond, Vermont, the one and only round non-denominational church designed and built by a native farmer carpenter in 1813.

Shaker round stone barn in Hancock, Mass.

A noted existing example of round durable and functional construction is the Shaker round stone barn now part of the Hancock Shaker Village Museum actually in Hancock, Mass., but served by Pittsfield, Mass.

The barn was built by a religious group now long gone known as Shakers. A spin-off group from the Quakers, part of their philosophy was that if you treat the land well, it will treat you well. That philosophy is still applicable today. The Shakers were constantly trying to improve their farming methods by selection and breeding. Their plants, grains, fruit trees and animals became outstanding and they were adopted by farmers throughout the country. They also designed and built their own buildings, most of which are still standing due to their sturdy construction and simple basic design.

This barn is noted as being the first large round stone barn built in this country. It was used as a prototype by other farmers and promoted by several agricultural colleges, resulting in construction of round barns in most of the states and in Canada. Some are still standing and several are in constant use in the state of Vermont. This barn has been repaired twice, once after the formation of the Shaker Museum Village of about twelve original buildings all in excellent condition.

From the photo and schematic note (view them in the  Image Gallery ) you can see that the barn has three entrances – one at grade level for cattle, one ramping up from grade to a second floor, and one descending from grade so that a team of horses and wagon can drive completely around the building and exit at the point of entry. That is, one drive-way is above the cattle floor and one drive-way is below the cattle floor.

On the upper drive-way floor, several loads of hay could be unloaded at one time with the aid of gravity that is pitching downyard – as mow built above wagonload height, additional manpower was necessary. Gravity was also used to clean the livestock floor, as all manure could be dropped through several trap doors to wagons or sleds beneath. The circular arrangement of windows and central ventilating shaft permitted control of temperature and humidity during the winter months. Also heading all cattle into a circular center aisle permitted easy feeding.

One-room schoolhouse in Brookline, Vermont

The town of Brookline, Vermont, a small typical New England village, has its town offices in a sturdy, well built, round brick building, formerly the town’s one-room schoolhouse.

Well documented facts show the building was designed and built by the area’s medical doctor with local materials. The bricks were made in the vicinity and lumber was available for the cutting in the then-heavily forested countryside. All labor was donated by the citizens, for at that time men had to learn to be carpenters and masons in order to build their own log cabins and later advance to timber framed houses and other needed buildings.

Early in the 1800s a medical doctor (Dr. Wilson) appeared on the scene, apparently from either England of Scotland. Well educated in both academic and medical fields, he soon came to be the capable and well-liked doctor for the inhabitants of the area.

With the population increasing, education for the children was a problem. This was long before large government grants for building schools were available, so each growing community built its own school or schools. Some had several one-room schoolhouses at convenient locations. In this instance the local doctor designed the school, paid for the needed materials, supervised the townspeople in the construction, and then taught the children until a suitable teacher was found. The school remained in use until 1929 when the town built a larger school and used the existing one for its town office.

Now to return Dr. Wilson. He appeared out of the blue – never had anything to say about his past, was always well dressed, never married, but always had a faithful manservant. He was never seen throughout his life in the village without a neckerchief or a high ruffled collar about his neck. However, he was diligent and had an excellent reputation as the area doctor.

As traveling increased and more people passed through rumor started circulating that the good doctor was recognized as one of a pair of Scottish highway robbers known as Thunderbolt and Light-foot. Two sons of famous British families, they were finally caught and sent to prison but an escape to America was engineered. This member utilized his training but the background for his manservant was never found; however, one can guess. This also accounts for his financial status as it was rumored he escaped with a considerable sum of money.

Age took its toll and to his dying day he wore his high ruffled collar. Shortly after his death the servant disappeared and when local people prepared the body for burial they found scars left by a prison iron neck collar kept covered all these years and corresponding scars left by leg irons. Also found was a collection of valuable jewelry, a pair of expensive pistols, and a couple of famous make muskets with an ample supply of ammunition. Then it dawned on the townspeople why he built a round school. It is close to the road, shielded by a high rise of ground, in view of the road at all times – in other words, he was always watching for the sheriff. This may all sound fictitious but ask anyone in Brookline, Vermont, and you will be told this same bit of history.

Now view the photo for details (view it in the  Image Gallery ). Notice the lines are still true. It has an ample combination woodshed, horse shed (as many students rode to school), and a boys’ and girls’ room. The interior is in very good condition, well heated by a wood stove. The exterior brick is in good condition, and one could say the building is good for may years to come.

Sixteen-sided polygonal church in Richmond, Vermont

In Richmond, Vermont, there is a round church – actually a sixteen-sided polygonal church built in 1813(view it in the  Image Gallery ). Records indicate five Protestant denominations, not one large enough to construct its own church, together hired a farmer-carpenter-builder to build this church and, with the help of all concerned, constructed this sturdily built church for a total sum of $2,305.42. Use of the building was shared by all.

Then, as membership in individual sects increased, one by one they built their own, resulting in the round building’s becoming idle and starting to deteriorate. Therefore, the town assumed ownership but did not get around to making the necessary repairs. Finally a citizens’ historical society took over and raised the necessary funds to completely restore the building. Then it was declared a non-denominational church available to all religions.

The restoration uncovered the original workmanship. Paneling made from single boards twenty inches in width planed down by hand were found, with the hand plane marks still visible. The pews and circular choir loft were arranged in accordance with the original plan. This produced an overall quaintness that is somehow missing in today’s construction so that now everyone wanted to use the church for special services, weddings, etc. All Protestant denominations, along with Catholic and Quakers, have held services in this unusual church. Signs at the entrance to the town state “Richmond, Vermont, home of the one and only non-denominational church.”

Both the original builders and today’s restorers deserve the highest praise – first for building a sturdy structure and second for guaranteeing the continuity of this prize example of original New England architecture. All in all a true Christian cooperation. IMA