Round Barns: Preserving a Truly American Tradition
Efficient and inexpensive, round barns came too late.
Shelburne Museum, in Vermont, is home to this traditional round barn.
Once reviled as ridiculous, the American round barn’s economical volume-enclosing efficiency was never able to attract widespread adopters, despite the efforts of many state boards of agriculture. Evolving from early polygonal designs, round barns captured George Washington’s fascination for their thrift in construction and convenience of use. Shakers are said to have built the first true round barn in western Massachusetts using stone. Late turn-of-the-19th-century dairymen in Wisconsin and Illinois were among the few enthusiastic adopters.
Today, round barns tend to be anomalous icons of America’s agricultural past. Our fascination has placed many such structures on historic registers across the United States, but many others remain tucked away, the unsung heroes of an agrarian age long past.
Round barns didn’t catch on in part because they represented a change that farmers and ranchers simply weren’t able to accept. Tight ethnic agricultural communities more or less dictated the proper, if not moral, style of barn in a particular region. In some places, farmers might be shunned or given limited access to certain necessary facilities or markets if they built so radically different a barn. In other places, they might simply have been thought a fool.
In the Kansas Board of Agriculture’s 18th Biennial Report, the Illinois Agriculture College is credited with completing so careful an analysis of the construction and use efficiencies associated with round barns that it seemed obvious that the structure was indeed the innovative choice.
The Historic Round Barn of Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania, is one well-preserved example of the type. Today, the Knouse family owns the structure and runs a farmers’ market from the location. Kyle Knouse says the round barn, which is unique to Adams County, was built by the Noah Sheely family to replace a conventional barn that burned to the ground.
“The Sheelys were known to be very innovative. (Their) son, Daniel, saw a round barn (near) Hershey, Pennsylvania, and convinced his father and brother that this is what they needed. The blueprints of the barn came from information they received from the Illinois Agriculture Experiment Station and the architect, Morris Rhodes, from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania,” Knouse says. “The barn at that time was used to house about 50 head of cattle and about 16 mules or horses.”
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