The weekend retreat for a turn-of-the-century brain surgeon still stands today and has a growing collection of donated antique farm equipment
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Built with concrete reinforced with steel rods, an unheard-of structural feature in a barn of that era, the first floor of the three-level structure became the living quarters for Ryan’s Black Angus cattle. Fifty cattle stanchions, an extensive feeding system utilizing wooden chutes to transfer feed from the second-floor granaries down to the first-floor troughs, and a trolley-run waste removal system encircle the base of the silo like a doughnut.
Visitors touring the barn can reach the second floor via ramps that lead to a pair of double doors. Ryan had these sliding entrance and exit doors built large enough to accommodate a horse and wagon piled high with hay, straw or feed. Several enclosed granaries, each containing a wooden chute to deliver feed to the first floor, can be found at several locations around this level of the barn. A ring of stalls around the outer wall, once used for equipment storage, now house the Round Barn’s growing collection of donated agricultural antiques. A seed germinator, large wooden roller, walking plow, lime spreader, a dirt slip (“the bulldozer of its time”), and a Farmall F-20 tractor restored by the Annawan (Ill.) High School Ag Mechanics class are among artifacts displayed at the barn.
The third level of Ryan’s Round Barn is a railed open hayloft or “mow” that, at capacity, held up to 250 tons of hay. The carpenters left a 4-inch gap between the wooden floor of the loft and the outer wall of the barn for two reasons: air circulating around the hay helped prevent spoilage, and it reduced the risk of spontaneous combustion.
This floor contains three enclosed chutes extending to the first level. In the old days, hay wasn’t baled up nice and neat like it is today: it was put up loose, so the chutes were enclosed to cut down on the mess by keeping the hay together. A self-supporting roof with no interior support columns increased the loft’s storage capacity and made it easier to move hay in. Viewing the three-ringed, dome-shaped roof from the exterior, Dr. Ryan included dormer windows in his design, and a 10-foot cupola, both added sources of light and ventilation for the loft.
Ownership of Ryan’s Round Barn changed hands in 1939 when Ed Johnson, an Annawan banker, purchased the ground from the estate. In 1969, the State of Illinois bought the land the barn stands on and added it to the Johnson Sauk Trail Park. Time took its toll on the barn, and in 1974, rumors circulated of state plans to demolish the deteriorating structure. A group of concerned Henry County residents formed a coalition to preserve the barn, and Dec. 31, 1974, notification came that the site had been added to the National Register of Historic Places, which helps protect historically significant buildings from being demolished.
In more recent times, the Friends of Johnson’s Park Foundation, an outgrowth of the 1974 coalition, has been a driving force in the preservation and operation of Ryan’s Round Barn. Dedicated volunteers have ensured that the barn was restored to its original condition; restoration and maintenance remain an ongoing process.
As the 20th century draws to a close, fewer than 50 round barns still exist in Illinois. Some have been lost to vandals; others to eroding effects of time, but thanks to a dedicated group of concerned people, a unique piece of America’s agrarian past has been preserved for posterity. FCRyan’s Round Barn is operated and maintained by The Friends of Johnson’s Park Foundation. Guided tours are available from May to October, on the first, third and fifth Saturdays of the month, from 1 to 4 p.m. For more information, contact Johnson Sauk Trail State Recreation Area, (309) 853-5589.Susan Wildemuth is a writer who lives on a farm near Geneseo, Ill., with her husband, son, Spud the dog, and two lizards named Larry and Moe.