The bank barn
Farming is hard work, without a doubt. Another job always needs to be done, with too few hours left in the day and too few days in the week. This is especially true if you also hold down a full-time job, as so many small-scale farmers do. Efficiency, labor and timesaving devices can make or break your operation, and the right barn will go a long way toward helping you get it all done.
Part of the solution could be a Pennsylvania bank barn, especially in locations where winters tend to be harsh. German immigrants began building these barns more than three centuries ago when they arrived in Pennsylvania, and many of the earliest barns are still in use today. Bank barns were designed to maximize production while minimizing effort, and they’re just as efficient today as they were 300 years ago. With lofty upper-story haymows and granaries, they can hold enough feed and fodder to last through even the harshest winters, while keeping livestock warm and secure in the lower floor.
A bank barn’s signature feature is in its construction, built into the side of a bank or low hill. If no bank is available, an earthen man-made hill can take its place, with ground floor access to both levels. More to the point, it allows drive-in access to the upper level.
The beauty of this arrangement first becomes apparent at harvest time. Loaded hay wagons can be driven inside the central bay in the hill-sided back entrance of the barn, then unloaded into the mows without the need for a hay elevator or hay hook. With a little determination and a couple of farm hands, you can fill an entire mow to the roof completely by hand. That is, assuming you use small, easily manhandled square bales. If an unexpected thunderstorm should roll in, as they often do in the heat of July and August, you can continue working while keeping your hay prime, yourself dry, and your barn protected from spontaneous combustion: A barn load of wet hay can create a dangerous situation, heating up quickly, catching fire, and causing disaster.
A bank barn’s upper level extends out over the front of the lower level by 8 to 10 feet, forming a sheltering forebay over the livestock entries. The front wall can feature main doors opening over the forebay, which allows you to use gravity to load hay into a waiting truck or wagon positioned below. Inside the barn, trap doors in the mow floors enable hay bales to be dropped into the lower level for convenient feeding. The oversized double bay doors on the back wall are typically 10 feet wide by 12 feet tall, easily large enough to admit loaded wagons into the central bay. A smaller man-door set into one of the bay doors allows you to slip inside quickly in bad weather conditions.
The energy-saving beauty of a bank barn shows itself in another way when livestock are brought into the lower level for the winter. The insulating properties of the earth surrounding the back and sidewalls, combined with mows filled with hay and straw, helps contain the animals’ body heat and maintain a comfortable 50- to 60-degree atmosphere in the stables.
A south-facing bank barn also catches the low winter sun’s rays, adding light and a little solar heat. Add a fenced-in barnyard, and you have an ideal spot for exercising your stock on mild days, giving them a chance to stretch their legs and get some fresh air.
The lower level of your bank barn can be set up to handle a variety of housing arrangements. Need box stalls for horses? Are milking stalls for dairy cattle in order? How about a gutter that runs along the rear of the stalls for easy cleanup? Do you need common housing for calves, sheep or goats? Simple. You can even set up a walk-in coop for chickens and other fowl.
Typically, a bank barn will be laid out in several stables divided by feeding bays, which run from front to back. The feeding bays provide room to store supplies, a day’s worth of hay and straw, space for a feed cart and silage cart, and a water source. Even better, the trapdoors in the haymows open directly over the feeding bays, right where you need them.
Each stable and bay will have its own set of “Dutch” doors. Open the top doors on warmer days to bring fresh air into the barn while keeping the stock inside, or close them to keep the heat in at night. Plus, the fore bay shelters the entry from rain and snow.
As your farm grows, your bank barn can grow with it. Many old barns have had satellite buildings added to allow more space. Lean-to stock sheds on either side are common additions. Silos are built beside the back wall, with a lower opening entrance into one of the feeding bays below, again harnessing gravity to help with the daily chores. Root cellars, corn sheds, hog and chicken houses, milk houses and workshops are all possible extensions to the typical bank barn. Many barns even have high population milking parlors added to them to modernize and make room for automated milking.
Pennsylvania bank barns have stood the test of time, and not just in the mid-Atlantic region. As America’s frontier extended west, Pennsylvanian pioneers took their beloved barn style with them, building bank barns in the Midwest and as far north as Ontario. If you’re ready for the challenge of a farming life and want to allow your barn to help you, you can bank on a Pennsylvania bank barn.
Learn about another efficient barn structure: Round Barns: Preserving a Truly American Tradition.
Andrew Weidman is a freelance writer and a native of Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Growing up, he spent many hours working in his father’s bank barn, loading hay, straw and grain, and tending livestock.