Western Article
Historic Barns, Our American Heritage

Western Article

With each passing year more family farms disappear from the American landscape. With it, so goes one of our most essential and powerful symbols of independence, hard work and tradition. The American barn.

Family farms were once vital centers for community life. Some would see it as the very heart of our American landscape. At one time the iconic barn could be found on every farm from coast to coast. They were an essential part of the whole operation. Their disappearance is slowly happening before our very eyes. So slowly that we hardly notice it’s passing.

These grand structures were built with sweat and hard labor. Their massive timbers pinned in place and built to last a hundred years or more. They were built by whole communities of friends and neighbors who volunteered their time and talents for the common good. 

Barns Come in All Shapes and Sizes

The Pennsylvania Dutch Bank barn is usually built on a sloping hill. This unique feature allows access from the ground at two levels. 

Crib barns are used for feed and crop storage as well as livestock pens. It's more common to find this type of barn in the south. 

Round barns are built for industrial efficiency and are more popular in the Midwest.

The Prairie barn, with its iconic gambrel roof is by far the most recognizable. The roof allows for an increased storage capacity. 

These are just a few of the many styles of barns that can be found across the country. Most served a common purpose. For generations they were the great storehouses of farming equipment and supplies. Grain was threshed on barn floors during the harvest season and stored in massive silos. The silo's were usually located next to barn . 

Barns like the Prairie barn have great lofts that hold tons of hay and straw for the feeding and bedding of livestock during the winter months. Stalls on the main floor offer a farmers stock a degree of shelter from harsh elements.

Old Barns -vs- Modern Equipment

One of the reasons for the ultimate demise of our countries barns has to do with our modern equipment. It has gotten so massive, it no longer fits through their doors. It's an unfortunate predicament for many of the old barns found on the rising number of mega farms.

They're being replaced with massive and unattractive metal warehouse type buildings. The old wood barn is no longer needed. They are being left to the elements, or torn down. On rare occasions they're torched and burned to the ground.

Another factor is that old barn wood has become the wood of choice in newer upscale construction. Homes with exposed massive old growth beams that show a 100 years of patina on them are in vogue. Highly finished barn-wood flooring sought after. Never mind the fact that a greedy, uncaring few are tearing down our heritage… there’s money to be made.

I admit that in my part of the country I see my fair share of dilapidated and outright abandoned barns. They're dying a slow death as they succumb to the elements. I find it difficult to drive past these historic buildings without feeling a sense of grief over their slow demise. Many of these barns are too far gone to be rehabilitated. It’s a shame if not a crime. As far as I’m concerned, if you have a historic barn on your property, you should maintain it.

Childhood Memories

The Prairie, or Western barn is the one I remember from my youth. On average, it is much larger than most other barns, with a much larger loft for storing hay and feed. I was one of six kids born in the big city of St. Paul, Minn. I was fortunate enough to have an uncle who owned a large farm not too far away, near Grand Forks, North Dakota. Each summer my parents would pack us kids into an old ford station wagon and drive out to my uncle’s place. While my parents had a good visit with family, us kids and cousins had a great time playing in their big old Prairie barn. We chasing chickens and were chased by huge pigs. (The ladder to the loft was in the pigpen). It was a risk, and great fun as well, to see if we could get to the ladder before the “Big” pig got to us. But building a hay fort in the loft was well worth the risk, and lucky for us, we always made it. We eventually moved to Oregon and I’ve missed that old barn ever since.

Just the smell of an old barn brings back some great memories. I must admit, I do feel a sense of loss whenever I see one of these great American icons, swaybacked and pitched to the point of no return.

All is Not Lost

All is not lost. There are worthy organizations out there that believe in saving these icons of American history. Many a good barn has been brought back from the brink of extinction by their passion, dedication and hard work. The people who run these organizations care enough to roll up their sleeves and do something about it. They raise money and repair roofs. They've done much more if necessary, including moving it if that's what it takes. The National Barn Alliance is one of these organizations. I’m grateful for organizations like this who care enough to do the hard work of saving these icons of our American landscape.

Take a look at some images of old barns here>>