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
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
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
… 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
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
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
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:
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,”
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