North American Barns come in many shapes and sizes. The word "barn" comes from the expression "a place for barley". As farming progressed, the barn began to house lots of other stuff... like winnowing machines, ploughs, roll-over rakes, wagons, sleighs, livestock, and the occasional raccoon.
The many styles of barn architecture found in North America reflect the diverse pools of immigrants absorbed by Canada and the United States in their early years. The North American landscape is littered with barns of varied shapes and sizes. To explain them here is not our purpose, but an overview is necessary to understand there is more to a barn than swinging doors, a bunch of cows, and a hay-hole.
In 1638, New Sweden was founded on Delaware Bay by the Swedish West India Company. This territory included parts of the present day American states of Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The Swedes brought with them an incredible work ethic and the quintessential pioneer structure - the log cabin. The Swedes were conquered by the Dutch in 1655 but the log buildings remained and influenced settlers for generations. One still exists in Prospect Park, Delaware County, Pennsylvania - The Morton Homestead.
The barn was built around the threshing floor. In working structures like a barn, form derives from function; as stated above - "a place for barley." To get at the barley, or any other grain, we must separate the kernel from the husk by a process called threshing - pictured at left. The barn provided the farmer enough room to swing the flail inside while under cover from the elements.
Most barns left standing in North America are from the 19th century. Before 1800, they were built entirely of logs. Wood is very susceptible to weather damage causing rot and erosion, so many of these buildings have fallen. As prosperity increased for the farmer, barn construction changed to incorporate brick and river stone. Another change affecting barns was immigration. As the new "architects" arrived from overseas, builders incorporated foreign techniques into their traditional practices of joinery and design. Below are a few examples taken from Eric Arthur and Dudley Witney's The Barn: A Vanishing Landmark in North America that show us some of the traditional barns found in North America.
The availability of timber for building, combined with a soft subsoil that discouraged heavy masonry, made carpentry in Holland a master art. When these expert builders came to America, they left their mark on the north-eastern United States with some of the most beautiful barns in the world.
The Dutch barn, mostly found in New York State, is one of the oldest styles in North America. Its architecture has close ties to the church - the points of visual affinity being: the barn's end entrance; and its floor plan - the nave and aisles in the church translates to the threshing floor and cattle stalls in the barn. The Dutch barn is often confused with the tithe barn.
The distinct feature of the Dutch barn are its end doors. Many had hip-gabled roofs, with the rafters widely spaced, more so than other barns. Other distinctive features were the living quarters - located at the end opposite the main doors, and the clapboard sheathing often used for the walls.
By the 19th century, Dutch barns in North America were slightly different. Families were living in separate farmhouses, doors were now at both ends to provide more room for wagons and better circulation for winnowing, clapboard had replaced the wattle and daub, and roofs were usually gabled. The illustration above shows one such barn, although without the gabled roof.
Also known as the Three Bay Barn, the Connecticut Barn, the ground barn, Grundscheier, or the Yankee, the English Barn had its doors centred on the long sides of the structure as opposed to its ends. The English barn was built for grain farming. The two end bays functioned as mows and the middle bay as the threshing floor. The mow was a place inside the barn where sheaves or hay was stored. Mows usually divided a barn into bays or sections and occupied 1/2 to 2/3's of the floor space. This typical English Barn (ca. 1840-1850) pictured at left is from Wexford (Scarborough Township), Ontario and now stands at the Whitchurch-Stouffville Museum in Gormley, Ontario.
Coming to the new world, some farmers altered the design of the English barn. Here's Daniel Stong's Grain Barn, located at Black Creek Village. Although of English design, Stong's grain barn incorporated his Pennsylvanian roots with a cantilever on the west side of the building. It's not enough to qualify as a forebay barn but does show how styles began to merge as settlers relocated throughout North America. The most distinctive feature separating old world English barns from new was the addition of a loft, and the housing of livestock in one of the mows.
Quebec and New England share much in terms of flora, fauna, history, and barn architecture. The Quebec Connected Barn was a row of mows, drive floors, stables, byres, piggeries, and storage bays. It was generally bigger than those in France, with posts and planks, or logs dividing each bay. Early roofs were thatched with straw.
Connected barns in New England formed a square as opposed to the long rectangle found in Quebec. This brought everything closer together but also increased the risk of fire. A common by-law for rural townships across North America was to restrict any fire source (e.g., blacksmith's forge, potash facility) to be at least 30-feet from the barn. New England connected barns were almost always walled with clapboard.
CIRCULAR AND POLYGONAL BARNS
Shakers and Quakers thought the circle was the most perfect form. They socialized in "circles" (sewing, singing, praying), and circles dominated their folk art - they believed it kept the devil from hiding in corners. The idea of the barn surrounding a central courtyard, already reflected in the connected barns of New England, found another life in circular and polygonal barns of the 19th century. The first known round barn was built of stone in 1826 in Hancock, Massachusetts, U.S.A. This idea was also the beginning of an "assembly line" mentality, making work more efficient for the farmer. The Troyer Barn, pictured above, stood in the township of Vaughan at Dufferin & Steeles, close to the Dalziel Barn. It was owned by Samuel Troyer. Now it stands in Country Heritage Park in Milton, Ontario.
In the early to mid-18th century, Germans from Bavaria, Saxony, and Switzerland came to North America to settle in Pennsylvania. This new wave of pioneers brought an indispensable knowledge of farming and building construction. From their heritage came an efficient barn design that consciously adapted itself to the orientation of the land and proved most valuable to the farmer's expanding markets. The Pennsylvania barn allowed for grain production on the upper level and animal husbandry on the lower level. Read on to see how this unique structure added functionality and sustainability to the North American farm.