Ryan's Round Barn

The weekend retreat for a turn-of-the-century brain surgeon still stands today and has a growing collection of donated antique farm equipment

| January 2000

A round barn! Have you ever heard of such a thing? Ask the folks from Henry County who live within driving distance of Johnson Sauk Trail Park on Route 78 near Kewanee, Ill., and they will answer you in their typical, straight-forward Midwestern fashion: “Yep.”

Weekend retreat for Dr. Lawrence P. Ryan

Nestled on a knoll near the entrance of the 1,361-acre Illinois state park, Ryan’s Round Barn was the brainstorm and pet project of a turn-of-the-century Chicago brain surgeon named Lawrence P. Ryan.

Wanting a weekend retreat for himself, and a permanent home for his small herd of prized Black Angus show cattle, Dr. Ryan’s quest for the perfect site ended in the early 1900s, when he purchased four tracts of land, 80 acres each, in the southeast corner of Henry County.

Designing Ryan’s Round Barn

The industrious doctor decided to deviate from the standard square barn design that dotted the countryside adjacent to his farm. Implementing an unusual architectural design first used in the U.S. by the Shakers in the early 1800s, he had plans drawn to build a round barn on his newly acquired property.

Why did Ryan choose to build a round barn? Unlike their square counterparts, round barns were considered tornado-proof, the first-floor circular feeding and waste-removal systems were more space- and labor-efficient, and they were round, so tax collectors often underestimated their size.

Construction of the barn was completed in 1910 at a cost, according to the Illinois State Preservation Agency, of a whopping $9,600 (more than $175,000 in today’s terms) – at a time when the average round barn cost $2,500.

Ryan’s barn is a three-level, domed-ceiling structure built on a slope so that the first and second floors are easily accessible from the outside at ground level. Built by an out-of-state crew of southern carpenters who specialized in round barn construction, it measures 80 feet tall and 85 feet in diameter.

Unique features of Ryan’s Round Barn

Most early 20th century round barns utilized vertical siding, but Ryan’s was built with horizontal siding, which helped to reinforce the strength of the walls. Sixteen-foot pieces of white pine siding were taken to a small lake located near the barn, soaked overnight, and hammered on to the frame while wet. The pine was so saturated that it bent, and subsequently dried with a curve.

Another interesting feature of Ryan’s barn is its silo, located in the building’s center. Beginning on the first floor, it extends up through all three levels of the structure. Due to the pressure of the enormous amount of silage that would be stored there, more support was needed around the silo’s base. That problem was solved when the carpenters double-boarded and reinforced the base with iron bands. Ryan, a man who paid close attention to details, instructed the crew to plaster the interior of the silo to protect the wooden frame from moisture and make it airtight, reducing the chances of rotting silage.