April 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 Nineteenth Century Barn

The pioneer barns discussed in the last Crooked Lake Review belonged to the time of hand tools, very simple machinery and oxen power. In the nineteenth century came a new era, which greatly accelerated following the Civil War, a time of more complex farm machinery, mostly horse-drawn, some steam-powered. It brought about changes in barns.

Take hay, for example, the single most bulky item stored in barns. The horse-drawn mower and the horse rake enabled much, much greater amounts of hay to be made than ever before. This hay, handled in bulk, not baled, could now be mechanically unloaded. That worked like this: forks had been developed that could be plunged into a load of loose (that is, not baled) hay and locked onto a substantial amount, say an eighth or tenth of a load. Or, slings were built into a load in the field, say four or five per load. Slings were webs made of rope and wooden slats, joined by a catch so that they would, at a pull on a rope, release and separate in the middle, dropping the sling's contents. When a load reached the barn the wagon was placed in position, either on the drive floor or outside at the end under a great door just below the roof peak. The "horse fork" on a rope was locked into its forkful, or else hooks on this rope were attached to the ends of a sling in the load. Then a horse or horses hitched to the rope outside were driven a short distance, raising the forkful or sling load by means of pulleys to the barn peak. There it latched into a "hay car" or trolley running on a track hung just below the peak the full length of the barn. Further pull on the rope moved the "car" along the track. When it reached a spot chosen by a man in charge of distributing the hay inside the barn a pull on a rope released the hay to plummet down to the mow surface where it could be moved to the sides by a man or men with hand pitchforks. This new system removed all limits of height and depth of mows, which were no longer influenced by a man's reach with a pitchfork. Mows of hay could be filled as high as the under-structure of the barn would support the weight They could run the entire length of the barn as well as not; the hoisting apparatus could place the hay anywhere along the barn's center line.

This one new practice alone was enough to start a new trend toward making barns ever larger, concentrating all the stored crops and all the livestock under one roof. This went on until the eighty-foot barn and the hundred-foot barn were no great rarities. There was an all-together snugness about this consolidation that Ralph Seager, the Penn Yan poet, has captured in his poem "A Barn is a Miracle," whose final stanza says:

"Here, in this small and magic box,
The farmer crowds his fields and flocks;
Arithmetic can never tell
How one barn holds the farm so well."

While eighty feet and one hundred feet may not seem so "small," any barn is small when compared to an entire farm.

With this trend away went the fire-protective precaution found in scattered barn locations, even though fire-fighting techniques in rural areas had improved hardly at all. But lightning rods had been perfected and traveling salesmen went about selling them, thus reducing one hazard. Commercial institutions and a money economy had come to the farms; farmers could now buy fire insurance. Often they formed their own cooperative fire insurance companies, as in the Grange and various local mutual companies. These softened the impact of fire and ameliorated taking a risk for the sake of convenience.

These newer, larger barns often had a basement dug into a bank, or at least a ground floor, devoted to livestock. In dairy sections this level was often filled with two lengthwise rows or tie stalls or stanchions, sometimes "heading in" and sometimes "heading out" There were prolonged arguments as to which was preferable. So filled, a hundred-foot barn could hold fifty cows or more, in other fanning areas there were pens and box stalls as well as a few stanchions and horse stalls.

The grain crop was often stored in bins in these barns, though many farmers kept on storing that item in separate buildings called granaries. Grain was one of the most concentrated and storable assets a farm had, always salable and quickly converted into cash, giving a good reason for not risking its storage in a single main barn. Also, separated granaries could be set on posts and made less accessible to rodents, while being more accessible to protective predator cats.

There came to be a new and increased emphasis in these structures on saving labor. Stables "heading out" had a drive-through floor behind and between the two rows of cows where a wagon or manure spreader could be driven through and loaded directly from the gutters. In other cases a ceiling-suspended track ran through the stables with a "car" on it from which was hung by chain hoists a tank or bucket of perhaps fifteen bushels capacity for the removal of manure. Manually pushed, this extended outside the barn where it could be dumped, either into a waiting wagon or in piles for later use. Water piped to the stalls into valve-regulated, cow-controlled cast metal bowls, not only saved work but improved the animals' health and production.

Silos and the making of silage came into use and became the object of experiment in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. At first, when silos were often square and home-built of sawed planks they were placed inside the barns. When the cylindrical shape was adopted and their number and capacity increased they soon outgrew that location and moved outdoors, beside rather than inside the barn.

A peak period for the construction of these barns must have been the decade of the 1880's. It is my impression that most of the dates one sees most often on them, carved into the peak or cornerstone, painted on doors or cupolas or laid with contrasting color slates into slate roofs, are the years between 1880 and 1890.

Many or most of these barns were traditional timber frame, though the beams were often sawed rather than hewn. They were covered with vertical board siding, with or without battens over the cracks, except for stable areas, which always had wind-tight walls. Many of the later-made, however, had what were called "balloon frames"-no massive beams at all, entirely two-inch sawed material, with two-by-six or two-by-eight rafters and studs and some floor-to-peak trusses built up of two-by-ten planking, judiciously spaced for strength. These trusses made it possible to eliminate cross beams, which was an advantage in storing hay. The "balloon-frame" types were often covered with horizontal-laid siding of either clapboard or novelty-cut wood. Doors and windows were neatly and sturdily built and large doors customarily rolled on factory-made track and roller hangers. Unlike the old three-bay barns which rarely received any paint, these barns were painted as often as not. They also often had pure ornamentation added, such as louvered cupolas and fancy millwork. Such barns when reasonably fresh painted were a striking sight, much liked by photographers and celebrated today in a variety of "coffee table" books and in calendars.

Roof framing might be of the simple gable design and often was, but even more common to these barns was the gambrel roof. You could get more hay under a gambrel roof than a straight-rafter roof. The angle of gable roofs and the proportions of the two slopes of gambrel roofs varied widely from geographic section to section, but ran remarkably uniform within such a section. This derived from the influence of the master carpenters who built barns. Each had his own favored rafter pattern which he and the apprentices he trained consistently used, but as you traveled on you would move into the sphere of influence of another such builder who used different patterns.

The old three-bay barns lasted out their lives essentially unchanged. They were not hospitable to change. These later, larger barns accommodated well to change. They did not always have to be replaced, they could be adapted. When field-baled hay took the place of loose hay some of them required reinforcing and extra support, but many were heavily enough framed with a wide enough margin of safety so (hat they accepted the greater weight of an equal volume of baled hay without alteration.

Those with lengthwise bottom-floor dairy stables were early subjected to change. When electricity became available they were, of course, wired, with changes for increased use of current as time went on. Milk houses containing electric milk coolers and sanitation facilities were added as demanded by milk markets. Cows over the years kept getting larger. To meet this, not only were individual stalls widened, thus reducing their number, but whole lines of stanchions were broken out and moved forward to lengthen the platform on which the cows stood, often necessitating much "fussy" concrete work. "Heads out" stables continued as before until converted to mechanical gutter cleaners. Other layouts could only be modernized by installing such cleaners at once, without time intervening. Stanchion lines were plumbed for automatic drinking bowls and vacuum lines for milking machines and sometimes, later after bulk milk-cooling tanks came into use, with glass tubing for "around the barn" pipeline milking systems. These barns absorbed all these changes as time called for them, assimilated them and went on serving the altered farm operation until very recent times or, in some cases, still—all without ever looking very much different to the hasty casual observer.

Especially, that is, in the dairy sections where they had barn-long lengthwise cow stables from the outset. Much of the Lakes region was not long-established dairy country. Typical farms there had some milk cows, along with sheep, beef and replacement cattle, cash grain market hay and crops like potatoes, beans and cabbage. Typical lowest stories in the "big barns" there had one short row of about eight cow stanchions across one end, horse stalls in another spot and open pens in the rest. Conversion to dairy use, which eventually did take place in many of them was a much more difficult and less satisfactory process which most often went like this: following the Depression, expansion of the dairy herds ususally involved the addition of another short row of stanchions across the barn. When about two more such rows had been added over time, the space was filled, but with a most inconvenient and labor-wasting layout that had to be cleaned into a wheelbarrow and was efficient to work in in no respect. With ever increasing labor costs this could not long be tolerated. Changing to two rows lengthwise was considered and often done, but a problem much encountered was that these barns often weren't quite wide enough for two rows length-wise. Agricultural engineers devised ways of removing one side wall, replacing its supporting function with bridging across two rows of strategically-placed posts. This gave the necessary few feet of additional width with a narrow one-story shed-roofed addition. Cooperative Extension helped circulate and implement this idea and two-row, long-way stables were thus created. They came too late, however, to serve their purpose for very long.

Even as the farmers worked in them, major changes were developing in the dairy business that made them obsolete; another drastic change in farm buildings would be the response.

When changes and new developments occur, those with the least satisfactory present situation are often the first to change. Explorers and emigrants come first from the poorest, most crowded countries—provided they have the capacity to remove. They have the least to lose. Thus it is that adoption of the next change moved fastest on the farms that had the most problems with the last go-round of modernization. Farms in the Finger Lakes country were among these.

These changes will be covered in the next and final installment of this series.

© 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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