by Jennifer Marek
Barns--they dot the American countryside but are rarely given a second glance. Unlike the sight of a battlefield where the vision of soldiers fighting immediately springs to mind, there is little about barns that captures the imagination. But look again at the barn. Think about it. When was it built? Who built it? What has it been used for? Is it still used? Why are so many barns red? These and many other questions surround the barn, an essential part of the farmer's everyday life. The barn sheltered the animals so necessary for the family's survival; it stored the hay and grain that the animals ate; it might even have been a dance floor on occasion.
When settlers came to Kansas and started farming, they faced the tremendous task of building not only a house but also a barn. They brought their own ideas about barn construction, but the plains landscape compelled them to adapt their plans. For example, the severe winters in the Northeast demanded that barns be connected to the house. The milder Kansas winters meant that the barn and house could be separate.
Few farmers had money to hire an architect or builder so they relied on their own knowledge and skill to construct a barn. Barns were round, polygonal, square, or rectangular; one to four stories high; and made of logs, milled lumber, stone, or brick.
Kansas farms typically featured Dutch barns, English barns, Pennsylvania bank barns, or round barns. Despite the suggestion of neat categories, mixtures of styles were just as common. A farmer borrowed freely from any style for his own barn. For the purposes of clarity, the following barn descriptions are in the easy to identify category. Actual barns that you and your students encounter might be conglomerates of various styles.
Dutch barns were always rectangular. They had a wide central aisle for threshing and two narrower aisles along the sides. The roof had two steep slopes with gables at either end of the barn. The door, large enough for a wagon loaded with hay, was at the end. In many cases there were doors at each end, so that the farmer could drive his wagon straight through and out the second door. Dutch barns usually had few or no windows.
English barns had three bays (spaces between the beams, buttresses, or pillars). The center bay doubled as a threshing floor and wagon road while the other bays sheltered the livestock on one side and stored grain and hay on the other. Two doors opposite one another in the center of the long wall had two functions. One was to provide a straight passage through the barn for a wagon. The other was to let the wind come through open doors to help winnow wheat from the chaff.
Pennsylvania bank barns were built with a hill on one side, usually the north side. The first floor sheltered the animals who could have access to the barnyard. The second, or main floor, was at the height of the hill where a wagon could drive right into the haymow and threshing floor. It provided huge areas in which to work. Many Pennsylvania bank barns had narrow slits, called loophole windows, for ventilation. These windows were larger on the inside to keep the rain out and let the warm air escape.
Originally built in the East by the Shakers in the 1800s, round barns typically had a silo in the center and cattle housed on the sides. This arrangement made feeding cattle easier as the hay was only a few feet away. Round barns were advocated by farmers' books and journals as progressive and scientific.
Although built strictly for utilitarian purposes, barns many times had decorative touches. These decorations, too, served a purposed. Fancy cupolas often topped the roof for ventilation and light, as seen in the Dutch barn picture. Weather vanes, in many shapes, tamed lightning. Not thought of as decorative because it was the easiest paint to mix, red paint enlivened many a barn. The early twentieth century saw barn sides being painted with advertisements. A representative from a company would paint the entire barn if he could put an ad on the side facing the road. Some purely decorative Victorian details included arches, peaks, and gingerbread.
Barns became more standardized in the early 1900s. Land grant universities designed and distributed barn plans. Ready-made barns were also available through the mail from catalog businesses such as Sears and Roebuck.
After World War II, when the first Quonset huts were used as army housing, Quonset barns began to replace the traditional barns. They were faster, easier, and less expensive to build with their metal sheets covering a curved wood frame. These metal buildings came at a time when agricultural practices were changing. Tractors had replaced horses so stalls or feed storage were no longer needed. Tractors required more room to be stored; room that the Quonset barns provided.
"Morton" buildings later competed with the Quonset barns. They were based on the same principle of metal sheets covering a wood frame except the shapes were different. Morton buildings reverted back to the traditional box shape.
Cheaper yet are the pole barns. They came with improved baler technology and dot the countryside now. With their metal roof supported by poles, they store massive quantities of bales that can easily be moved with machines.
Some of the old barns have been adapted for new uses. Hay and equipment can be stored on the threshing floors. Stalls can be rearranged. They can even be converted to entirely new purposes, such as a house or museum. Some barns are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Since they are no longer being used, still more barns are abandoned or demolished.
School projects could record the stories that surround Kansas barns and thereby ensure a place in history for these vital buildings. Projects could include: interviewing present owners, identifying structures and materials, noting any changes over the years, and comparing original use to current use. Investigating Kansas barns would also benefit students in learning research and writing skills.
The following vocabulary words could be introduced to students--granary, gable, gambrel, adze, winnow, wheat, chaff, haymow, bays, silo.
- The Barn by Eric Arthur and Dudley Witney
- Living Barns by Ernest Burden
- Barn by Elric Endersby, Alexander Greenwood, and David Larkin
- The Barn Book by Carolyn Janik
- Barns by Charles Klamkin
- Kansas Barns by Martha Knudsen
- Old Barn Plans by Richard Rawson
- An Age of Barns by Eric Sloane
- Barns in the USA by Wilson L. Wells
Drawings are reprinted from Kansas Barns by Martha Knudsen with permission of the author.