Barn Styles in American History

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A classic Western barn.
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Limestone block sidewalls have done much to keep this barn standing. Clay and gravel fill allow entry to the second level from the far side.
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A round barn, built in 1913. Most round barns were built between 1895 and 1915.
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A Dutch snub-nosed barn built of native limestone.
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An Amish-style dairy barn, complete with an overhang on two sides.

Nothing stands prouder than a well-maintained barn. But like many antiques, more than a few barns have been lost due to neglect.

Maintenance costs and obsolescence are natural enemies of barns. However, preservation efforts are increasing. Barns are seeing new uses as shops, restaurants, bed-and-breakfast inns and museums.

In the beginning: American barn styles

Early in American history, basically three barn styles were used: the Pennsylvania Dutch, Jamestown colonists barns, and barns of New England, such as the saltbox. Differences resulted from availability of building materials and individual builders’ quirks.

Some barns were built for specific purposes: horse breeding, dairy farming, cattle feeding, drying tobacco and livery barns. As the westward migration gained strength, barns in the Midwest and West developed their own style. Although they echoed Eastern styles, the Western barn, Prairie barns and Pennsylvania Standard reflected the rancher’s different needs.

Added to those were unique entries, such as the variant of the Pennsylvania standard called the “Yankee version” and the round barn.

The Prairie barn and Western barn most prevalent in Midwest and West

The tall “Prairie” barn was the most common barn in the Midwest and West. Built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Prairie barns were large enough to house draft animals, milk cows and hay (stored in a loft overhead).

Prairie barns were generally of frame construction with gambrel roofs, though some featured a curved roof called a “gothic.” Such barns typically sat on a foundation of stone or concrete, with sidewalls of stone for the bottom four to five feet.

“Western” style barns became more popular as settlers moved to the Plains. These tall, frame barns had extremely sharp-pitched “saddles” (gabled roofs).

Both Prairie and Western barns had a large hay door opening into the haymow, and a rain hood (or overhang) above the door. Inside, along the ridgepole, ran a track which extended out along the hood from which a hayfork was dropped to lift hay from a wagon to the loft. Both barn types usually had an enclosed granary.

The Midwest Limestone barn modeled off Pennsylvania Dutch barn of the East

In the Midwest, where limestone was easily accessible, another barn style was often chosen. Limestone blocks were used extensively for walls, with the roofs, rafters and interior framing of hardwood (often walnut cut on the farm). Wooden pegs often were used in place of nails to secure the frame and rafters.

Many limestone barns were patterned after the Pennsylvania Dutch barns of the East, placed in the side of a hill in three levels. The lower level snuggled into the hillside and was used for livestock. The second level was for implement and grain storage, and the third level was used as a haymow.

As the second level was built at the height of the hill, a hay wagon could be driven into it so hay could be forked into the haymow, or vice versa. In the Pennsylvania Dutch version, three sides of the barn were made of stone, with the south side of frame construction. Many such barns had air vents, and large, elaborate cupolas on top for interior ventilation.

The round barn

The round barn was likely the most unique style of barn built in the U.S. The great round barn built in 1826 by the Shakers at Hancock, Mass., undoubtedly served as inspiration for many. Round barns varied in size and design, depending on their purpose. Some were used for horse breeding; others housed dairy herds and draft animals.

Some round barns had overhead conveyor tracks around the perimeter of the lower floor, used to move feeding and manure handling equipment. Some had a central ventilation shaft also used to drop hay and other feed from above. “Dumbwaiter” elevators were a rare feature. Some had feed grinding equipment at the bottom of the shafts.

In some, radiating bracing timbers extended to the round walls, while others were built around a center silo with radiating timbers to support the great structures. Upper areas were usually completely open with no central support, with all support from the loft up to the cupola furnished by the stud ding and rafter arrangement.

The haymow capacity of the round barns was awesome. Often the diameter of the loft floor was as much as 80 feet, with 65 to 70 feet of space up to the peak.

Specific use and modifications resulted in unique barn structures

Some barns, livery stables and milking barns, for instance, were unique structures because of their use or modifications. Livery stables came in all shapes and sizes. Many were little more than enclosed shed-like structures. When stone was available, it was often used.

The milking barn, particularly as seen in Amish communities, was a long building equipped with stanchions on the first floor, and a haymow above.

A unique feature of the milking barn was an overhang above the first floor, which gave shelter below, including at the doors and windows. Usually those overhangs were on three sides of the barn, with those at the front and one side accessible to animals in the stock corral. The overhang on the third side was outside the corral, and furnished weather protection for wagons, buggies or other equipment.

“Byre (German for cattle) and bluff” was another design often using an overhang. The second level extended over the animals’ “loafing” area on the downhill side. Most byre and bluff barns had limestone foundations which kept them from settling. Their louvered venting was efficient at providing air flow, while keeping out snow and rain. Some had limestone threshing floors inside the main entrance, and star designs under their peaks. FC

For extensive information on barn types, history and more: The American Barn by Randy Leffingwell, Motorbooks Int., P.O. Box 1, Osceola, WI 54020.
For literature and programs on preserving and restoring barns, contact BARN AGAIN!, e-mail:; phone (303) 623-1504.
Paul F. Long is a Kansas freelance writer specializing in agricultural history and nature.
Gary Van Hoozer is a Missouri freelance writer specializing in agricultural history and farming methods.
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