November 1992

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A History of Barns


John Rezelman

Village Barns, The Pioneer Barn, The Nineteenth Century Barn, Evolution of the Present-day Barn

Village Barns

On the old residential streets of towns in Crooked Lake country, as elsewhere—the tree-lined kind, with the old houses and spacious yards—you may still see behind the dwellings a number of barns. They will be neatly-made structures of a style befitting the house they accompany but all very similar in size, general design and construction details.

That is because they were all made for the same purpose—to shelter one or two family driving horses, some hay, grain and straw for their sustenance, and the conveyances they pulled—a buggy always, and a cutter (sleigh); perhaps also a two-wheeled road cart, a democrat wagon (so called because it was not choosy about what it carried) and maybe a set of dickies (light bob-sleds). There were numerous possible combinations.

These barns therefore had certain common details readily visible from outside that identified them. There was always a big door, often sliding, sometimes hinged, large enough to drive a team and carriage through. At floor level of the second story (there was always a second story; that was the hay mow where hay and straw were stored) there was always at least one door about three feet by four feet. A farmer could drive or back his wagon directly under that door and unload purchased hay through it, either poking it through loose, forkful by forkful with a pitchfork or passing through it the heavy wirebound bales of the time. A series of small windows about eighteen inches square located just below the first floor ceiling told you the number and location of the horse stalls. Each tie-in stall always had one such window, placed high and admitting some light to the manger end. These three, then—big door, hay door and stall windows were enough to proclaim at first glance "horse and carriage house" combined.

By far the most of these structures were built in the nineteenth century and had a similar colorful life history, some of which coincided with my lifetime.

Inside them, there were more details in common and also more variations. The interior walls, for example—sometimes these were sheathed in rough lumber, but tongue-and-groove panelling, of chestnut or Southern yellow pine, stained and varnished, was often found. Stall partitions might be all of sturdy rough-sawed plank or they might be finished in that same paneling, with factory-made cast-iron appurtenances like dividing grilles, hay racks and grain bowls fastened into the mangers. Floors where the horses stood or crossed where preferred to be of elm plank. Elm would never wear smooth and slippery as harder woods might do, but wore to a fuzzed-up surface that gave safe footing to horses' hoofs, at all times, wet or dry. First-floor barn interiors were often rather dark, yet rather elegant in their material and finishing details.

At some point some of these barns crossed the dividing line between ordinary and truly opulent. Those that stood behind mansions often included, besides more horse stalls, some living quarters for coachmen and grooms, finished in that same dark paneling, plus glass-fronted harness closets for the proper display of silver-mounted harness and tack. Few of these remain. There were relatively few of this sort to begin with.

There were other features and appurtenances frequently found. If there was a well serving the barn, or "city water," there would be a sink with pump or hydrant for the filling of water buckets and the washing of harness. There would be harness hooks, racks or cabinets, shelves for veterinary supplies, including awesome-looking hard-rubber "drenching bottles." There would be deep feed bins for grain, often made from wooden piano boxes. Besides tie stalls there would nearly always be a box stall for an ailing horse. An extra stall or two for the horses of guests was not unknown. There were "hay chutes" from second story to first which, for good reason, were always "off limits" to children.

When I was born World War I had just ended. Most of these barns (there were more of them then) were empty, the horses having mostly left when the men went off to war, though the horse odor and pockets of dust, chaff and manure that had escaped the broom still lingered, along with odd bits of their gear and supplies. By the time I came to range ever farther in my explorations, coincident with starting school, many of them were no longer completely empty.

The portions once devoted to carriage storage by then held automobiles that stood over their oil stains soaked into the floors.

Many of them were Model T Fords, since Henry Ford had resolved that anyone with a few hundred dollars or some ability to make "easy payments" could have a car, and the public had responded with enthusiasm and alacrity. There might also, however, be Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Durant, Essex, Flint, Franklin, Graham-Paige, Hupmobile, Jewett, Knight, Locomobile, Marmon, Moon, Oldsmobile, Overland, Packard, Pierce-Arrow, Reo, Studebaker, Winton and others. The second-grade boy who could not instantly identify each of these as they whizzed by at thirty miles per hour stood to be classified as "stoopid" by his peers and subject to their derision.

Some of these barns still shelter automobiles. Unlike the garages built at that time to house single Model-T Fords, they did not have to be lengthened, while becoming ever more cramped sidewise as successive cars became longer and wider. They were always amply spacious and still are.

One feature that once existed but never is found any more was the manure pit. When occupied by horses manure came steadily and had to be put somewhere, even though people were quite accustomed to hordes of flies back in the horse days and were not overly upset by them. Gardeners and farmers, probably the same ones who delivered hay, would periodically remove manure from pile or pit as a wagonload accumulated. (Every spring as I fit my garden for planting I wish I had a load of that good stuff.) A manure pit was concrete-lined, a few feet deep and covered by hatches like cellar doors. Its advantage was that it kept the manure out of sight, although not fly-and odor-free. Once the horses were gone it offered no advantages and was somewhat dangerous to children, so these were early broken up, filled in and seeded to lawn.

While gradually being taken over for other household uses, these barn structures made wonderful places to play, particularly hide-and-seek. You could dribble a basket ball on the wooden hay mow floors and the open spaces were fine for theatricals.

Actually, as I think about it, though, we small boys chose the little chicken houses that stood empty on many village lots in preference to the more spacious barns, for "clubhouse" purposes. We could never entirely rid these of choking dust, but they seemed to us more easily defensible as "forts" and more suited to our "cops n' robbers" type activities.

Gradually the barns became overflow attics and workshops of various kinds, from auto repair and carpentry to pottery. Those with room still available for children to play became fewer and more highly prized by the children.

Now and then they had some unusual uses. I remember one barn on a residential street in the early 1940s where a retired farmer kept a cow or two. When he milked, neighbors came with their kettles and jars and purchased raw milk. This surely was legitimate at the time, as his barn backed up against the yard of a veterinarian whose duties included law enforcement in certain areas. Today, of course, this would violate a list of laws, regulations and ordinances. Winter boat storage became an increasingly popular use which survives.

During the Depression there were many needs for which there was not enough money. Upkeep of these barns was often one. If the roofs leaked and were not repaired the end came soon, for that is sure death to a building. Since these buildings almost never had basements and were built on "footers" close to the ground, the decay of sills was quite common. This would be signaled by changes in the roofline as the structure settled. The remedy was to jack up the roof from the plates, cut off the rotted ends of the posts, remove the rotten sill and lay up a stub masonry wall to meet the posts where they were still sound, then lower them on to a new sill. Floors were apt also to need attention where they joined the sill. When this work was done in time, if needed, the building became better than new and is likely standing plumb and square yet.

There were other horse-and wagon-sheltering structures in urban areas, of course—livery stables that rented out horses and conveyances, "hitch barns" where travelers could "put-up" their horses by the hour or by the day, and shelter for horses used in commerce—freight haulers of various kinds. Most of these were located in or close to the business districts, however, and are gone in favor of other uses—made into parking lots, if nothing else. It is the horse-type, home-use barn that still stands today.

If there is such a surviving barn on your property and if the question arises of what to do when it needs some money spent on repairs and maintenance, I urge and promote this response: get some cost figures on alternative replacements for it—pre-fab garages or sheds, "pole barns"; whatever your zoning laws permit. Reduce these figures to cubic feet of usable space and do that same for your barn. Compare and draw your conclusions. I think it very likely the barn will stay. It it does, and if there are any horse stalls still as they originally were, leave at least one intact. The space it encloses will still be available for storage, but what's wrong with having your own private transportation museum for future generations to see?

© 1993, John Rezelman
Village Barns, The Pioneer Barn, The Nineteenth Century Barn, Evolution of the Present-day Barn
Index to articles by John Rezelman
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