A Door to the Past

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Here is a clever take on bi-fold shed doors: All three sections fold in.
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Even a small amount of snow, such as this, shows why overhead doors are so desirable.
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A large sliding door such as this was a good compromise. A major disadvantage was they were almost impossible to seal up so the building could be heated.
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The earliest overhead doors were one piece, made of light aluminum so they were easy to pivot.
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Most original sheds were open front. When wooden doors were added, they often ended up sagging — as the top of the right door shows — so they were hard to open.
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Since overhead doors are so common today, many rustic farm buildings like this have been retrofitted with them.
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It may be safe to say that there is no such thing as a farm with just a house. New or old, large or small, presentable or shabby, close-in or strung-out, identifiable or nondescript, used or unused, outbuilding are the farm.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal focused on thewell-known phenomenon offirst impressions. Somewhatstartling was the claim that the firstmillisecond is the most importantpart of the first impression.

In other words, before you are even aware of another person somewhere nearby, you have aided or detracted from your successful relations with that individual by your appearance. Appearance in this instance includes obviously your attire, but also includes the way you carry yourself, your body movements and facial expression, and what you do with your hands. If true, that is pretty shocking, right?

While it is true that first impressions of any kind are important, we all know that first impressions are only a small part of human interaction. They provide only the framework of a long-term relationship between two people. The first impression is the starting point. Most often, just a small amount of time together modifies that impression, sometimes drastically.

Farmstead creates an impression

What does that have to do with the subject of this article? This magazine focuses on farms, each of which has its own persona and visual impact. Every farm in this great land of ours is unique. It is safe to say that no two farms are even marginally alike, because there are too many variables. Obviously geography is involved, but more than that, each farm is an extension of those who live on the farm.

When a stranger sees your farm for the first time, what he sees tells a lot about you. Those of us older agricultural enthusiasts have seen the average farm’s appearance change so dramatically that many farmsteads of today hardly look like they are involved in the same activity of growing crops as those of our youth. The dramatic progress made in every detail of farming makes magazines like Farm Collector essential as a means of chronicling earlier ways of farming. And that is where “doors” come in.

Evolution of the outbuilding

All farms have a home and outbuildings. As far as day-to-day living is concerned, the farmhouse is the center. However, it may be safe to say that there is no such thing as a farm with just a house. New or old, large or small, presentable or shabby, close-in or strung-out, identifiable or nondescript, used or unused, outbuildings are the farm. And anyone driving up to your place for the first time sees all those. Collectively, those structures provide the first impression of your farm.

Entrances to farm buildings almost always face the farmyard or other area where most human activity takes place. Thus, a first-time visitor to your place sees mostly the doors of the outbuildings, because those are the prominent front feature of each. Today’s large modern shops and machine sheds look almost commercial, with tall overhead doors fronting on an open space.

It is difficult to determine when that type of construction became the standard, but it has been fairly recently in the overall scheme of things. Metal-sided buildings have been around for decades, but a check of those built up to about the mid-1960s reveals almost all were made of galvanized metal. Older, non-corporate dairies’ milk barns and outbuildings were clean silver metal.

When they began to be used on farm outbuildings, porcelain-enamel siding and roofing changed everything. Beauty, durability and ease of construction were enhanced. At the same time, the large (10 or more feet high, 15 or more feet wide) overhead doors became the standard. Made of the same basic material as the weather-resistant siding, their light weight and convenience in accessing the building was a boon to farm equipment storage. Advances in the use of electric openers was the icing on the cake.

Buildings forced to accommodate change

But let’s go back in time to doors on early buildings that housed farm machinery. Barns and animal enclosures are not part of this discussion because they are a different subject, one complicated beyond belief. Only rarely did field implements in the animal farming era need inside storage. The threshing machine, owned by only a few farmers back in the day, is an example.

The arrival of tractors changed all that. Even the most basic tractor in the early days was an elaborate machine for its day and exposure to the weather caused quick deterioration. Since it was an expensive item, the tractor demanded shelter, and machine sheds began to appear. In addition, tractors needed periodic repair, some of which was complicated, so additional shop buildings were created. Slowly but surely, open-faced sheds were enclosed with doors.

Today we might think that the lowly shed door is a simple subject, but such was not the case. You see, family farms, as most farms could be described clear up into the 1950s, had limited resources other than the basics. Construction of an outbuilding was a major investment and creating doors so it could be used year-round was difficult. In climes where snow doesn’t accumulate on the ground for an extended time, two hinged doors meeting in the middle could be used. But even that wasn’t without difficulties.

Sliding and dragging

Openings large enough for equipment storage required large doors. The weight of farmer-created wooden doors put stress on the building opening. Anyone who visits an old farm will discover at least one front-opening door that drags so hard that it is difficult to open and close. The reason is, the building has shifted.

Front-opening doors are almost useless where snow lies on the ground for extended periods of time in the winter. You can’t get them open. Sometimes it takes a lot of chopping just to get them open wide enough to allow you to squeeze in. For some, bi-fold doors offered a solution. Several narrow sections are hinged in such a manner that only the depth of one door section is needed to open the building’s entrance. The drawback was additional cost in materials, and added weight on the building’s frame.

The sliding door offered an alternative, if the budget would stand the expense. While it is true that, in deep snow, a trench must be shoveled straight out from the door so it can slide out its width, that doesn’t take too much shoveling because the door is naturally not very thick. A trench of just one shovel width is fairly easy to keep clean throughout the winter.

Arrival of the overhead door

Overhead doors offered an answer to the whole problem, but until they were commercially available, only a few creative individuals attempted to make their own. A homemade wooden door that can be raised overhead high enough to allow machinery to pass could weigh several hundred pounds. Very substantial tracks and counterweights were necessary. For years I worked around a successful homemade door that used short sections of welded railroad rails as counterweights.

In our rural area, the first commercial overhead garage/shed doors arrived on the scene in the 1950s. Only a few “rich” farmers (as we viewed them) bought aluminum overhead doors.

The one-piece doors were light enough that they could be fairly easily lifted so they pivoted overhead. Does it sound strange that those of us without overhead doors were envious of those who had them? They were wonderful in our deep winter snow area.

As our country became more affluent, Overhead Door Co. expanded everywhere, selling its tried-and-true doors. Commercial buildings were commonly so equipped and rural farmers often managed to afford one of the durable wood doors for an important farm building. Owners of smaller buildings had to make do with the old front-opening swinging doors.

As time went by, other manufacturers entered the overhead door market; today, several choices are available. As someone who builds garages, I have discovered that good used overhead garage doors are now throw-away items. Although I have several self-built garages with overhead doors from various manufacturers, I have never had to buy one. People who replaced a door gladly gave me their old one. We’ve come a long way, baby!

An interesting phenomenon has taken place in recent years. If you have an old farm, people who visit your place will actually enjoy seeing (and might like to talk about) those clunky old-fashioned outbuildings and their doors. I guess the ultimate is an experience I had recently, when I discovered an individual with an easel down by the main road, painting the scene of rustic buildings in the distance. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment