Barn Toppers: A Unique Collection of Capolas

Richard Mayers' collection of barn toppers honers underrated relics.


| April 2006



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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.

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.