March 1993

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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

The Pioneer Barn

Crooked Lake country, like most of New York State, was originally forest country. Except for a few "oak openings" and some flats adjacent to water there were no natural grasslands. The livestock favored by our early-settler farmers, however—horses, cattle and sheep—were grazing animals. Such animals as they brought here had to learn to be at least partial browsers, like the deer, elk and moose native to forest areas, in order to survive the first few years. Goats were the only exception among ruminants—they were already natural browsers, preferring trees and shrubs to other food. Hogs, with their abilities to root everywhere and eat almost anything, quickly adapted to their new environment.

These first settlers, to clear the forest at the outset, grew mostly corn among the tree stumps for their own food, along with as much wheat and rye as they could. We read that they often couldn't wait, but ate these grains in a green, unripe state in their hungry eagerness, in spite of resulting digestive upsets. Under conditions like these there was not much food produced for livestock. The "critters" had it rough, but the main product expected of them was survival, just keeping the spark of life intact until the next growing season returned. As had long been customary, even in the Old World from which he had emigrated, the pioneer farmer estimated in autumn, as soon as the weather became cold enough so meat would not spoil quickly, how many of his few head could survive the winter and which ones they were. Then the rest were slaughtered for eating—fresh, salted or smoked, for home use, sale or barter.

Since they could keep but few animals needing shelter and had little or no hay to store for them, farmers at this earliest stage did not have much need for barns. A simple shed confining and sheltering horses or oxen sufficed at this period.

As the years went by more land was cleared and subdued; stumps were often pulled and made into stump fences; crop rotation was introduced, and with it came seeded grasslands and clover. Now there was hay and pasturage in quantity. There were surpluses of grain to sell in one form or other (in bulk, or distilled), as well as to feed to livestock. Now the fanners had need of barns large enough to store these crops and to shelter more livestock for better production. Now they could become animal husbandmen instead of just herdsmen at the most primitive level.

The first barns were like the first human dwellings, were made of logs. But sawmills soon became common and barns made of sawed boards over hand-hewn timber frames became the norm.

In the Hudson and Mohawk valleys the earliest settlers, the Dutch patroons among them, had built large barns on the ancient European plan—a central alley lengthwise of the structure, with the rafters supported by posts completely enclosed out of the weather, balanced on their center point so that the sidewalls literally "hung" from the rafter ends instead of the walls supporting the rafters. This was a very durable mode of construction since the main supporting posts were inside on masonry piers, thus protected from the forces of decay.

In Western and Central New York in those days, however, the popular model was most likely to be the English three-bay barn—a central drive crosswise with a mow for hay or unthreshed grain on either side, under a simple gable roof. Many, if not most, of these were made without basement, but a ground-level story was often provided under the mows for stabling livestock. Grain bound into bundles, straw and all, would be stored in the mows at harvest and threshed out, with flails at first, all through the winter, on the threshing floor of the central alley. This was a drive-through floor with great doors at each end. These could be opened, from a little all the way to wide open, as needed, to admit a breeze for winnowing out the chaff from the threshed grain. There were usually bins for grain under one mow, and once one mow had been emptied and the straw stacked outside, the straw from the other one could be stored in the emptied one, if desired. This made an efficient grain-handling unit for the practices of the times. When threshing machines came to supplant flails they could be set up in the central alley and all other steps proceed as before, only much faster.

These barns were almost never very large. Twenty-eight or thirty feet wide by thirty-six or forty feet long were typical dimensions. Timber frames this size were easier to set up than larger ones at barn-raising bees where neighbors were not numerous. Also, when everything had to be moved by hand pitchfork, nobody wanted mows to be too deep from the wagon in the central alley to the outer end wall. Sometimes long barns were made with two or three drive floors, being in effect two or three three-bay barns connected end to end. Other times up to four such barns were grouped so as to enclose a central barnyard.

Quite frequently, when the farm's production increased so that second and third three-bay barns were needed these were placed at some distance from each other. This might reduce efficiency in doing livestock or other chores, but in case of fire it could be the means of saving something instead of losing everything in one great conflagration. Bucket brigades manned by the people available were the only means of fighting fire and not.a highly effective method. If the buildings were far enough separated, however, there was a chance that those on the side from which the wind came might escape unburned. The early farmer was in effect paying a fire insurance premium as he trudged from barn to separated barn.

Actually, however, a very common, much-favored arrangement had these barns, often combined with open-face sheds especially suited to wool-encased sheep, enclosing a central open barnyard. This barnyard, strange as that might seem, was often dished slightly so as to retain water that fell upon it. The way these yards were used was to deposit in them about all the straw produced on the farm in a centrally located stack. Straw is not sufficiently nutritious to sustain high production of meat, milk, wool or anything else, but when the object of feeding livestock is maintenance, survival until grass grows again, straw supplied in abundance is useful, and that was often the case in the early days. Stock will eat it when not offered anything better. So the animals were turned into this straw-yard to help themselves (and no doubt doled out a little hay or other feed also as required). Now every farmer knows what stock will do when confronted with more roughage than they can immediately eat. They will strew and trample it. That's what they did with the straw stack, and that's just what was wanted of them. They ate some and mingled some with urine and manure, compacting it underfoot into a solid mass. This was the "barnyard manure," mentioned and praised for its fertilizing value in old methods of crop production. Likely not all the ground froze under this thick insulating "manure pack," as it is called even today. This allowed some internal draining away of surplus water through the underlying soil and the straw in volume of course absorbed a great deal of moisture, making the area comfortable underfoot for the animals rather than the complete quagmire you might imagine. Some of this is speculation, but there has to be some reason why old barnyard sites are practically always concave and were tolerated that way. (These people were able to haul stone and gravel and make ditches if they wanted to.) The loads of "barnyard manure" hauled out and spread on the fields were what the land, by now having been cropped for several years, needed.

Sometimes there was a well with pump or bucket at the barn to fill a watering trough. Other times a flowing stream or spring would be piped with wooden pipe through a trough, the overflow draining away outside the yard. But often, too, the stock would be driven, maybe twice a day, to some stream or pond nearby to drink. When this was done, there were sure to be times in winter when what the animals lacked came to include sufficient water, as stock just will not stand long enough in a chilling wind to drink all the near-freezing water they really need. Again, the tough survived.

Livestock accommodations inside the barns might be stalls or pens or stanchions, but the best of these were always provided for the horses. His horses were the pioneer farmer's special favorite. This was not capricious discrimination. The horses had a special function. They alone could travel fast enough, long enough to meet special needs. They could go to summon midwife or doctor in a hurry; they could pursue a wrongdoer or escapee, whether human or animal and a horse could carry a sack of grain to the mill and bring it back as flour without taking too long to do it. The oxen might be fine on plow or log chain, but the horses were the best link with the world beyond the early settler's farm. They were valued as such, and confined so as to be readily available without the delay of finding and catching them, and cared for so as to be always ready to go.

These three-bay barns with yard and straw stack are the ones shown in old Currier and Ives prints and were up-to-date until after the Civil War. Today most of them are gone. Their hand-hewn beams and rough-sawed, weathered boards decorate some restaurants and barrooms, but here and there out in the countryside one still shelters its quota of baled hay, grain and tractor-drawn machinery.

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