Efficient and inexpensive, round barns came too late.
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.”
Like most round barns, the Gettysburg round barn was built with a center silo, and two rows of stanchions allowed cattle to eat and drink at the troughs built on either side of the center walkway. The barn’s floor was sloped from front to back, which allowed for easy manure removal from the stalls.
“This barn was built in a time when they didn’t have the machinery that we have today. It was all done by hand with the help of mules and horses. The barn’s central silo is 60 feet tall and the diameter of the barn is 82 feet (with the) total circumference of 282 feet,” Knouse says.
Round barns may have been practical for enclosing the most volume for the least amount of materials and money, but they had several other advantages.
“In the windy plains, a round barn would be stronger. Also, if the barn was used a lot for livestock, it is easier to move animals around if there are no square corners. Cattle and sheep have a tendency to crowd together with their heads stuck in the corner. If it was used primarily for grain, a square corner can be hard to clean out, and like the livestock, corners can be harder to get the air to circulate through the grain (possibly) making it more prone to spoilage,” says Walt Bones of Hexad Farms, Parker, South Dakota, owner of another beautifully preserved structure. “There are not many (round barns) left in our area. I just know of one in Britton, (located in) northeast South Dakota, that was similar to ours.”
Bones finds the most fascinating aspects of his polygonal barn to be the design and engineering that went into constructing it.
“It had to take a lot of planning and expertise, especially considering the tools available 100-plus years ago,” Bones says. “The builders had to be very resourceful and creative.”
Lizabeth Rasser, whose family owns the Starke Barn in Red Cloud, Nebraska, believes that preserving round barns is imperative because they’re disappearing from the American landscape faster than many endangered species.
“Round barns are especially important because they’re truly American,” Rasser says. “They do not have the European beginnings that many aspects of our heritage do.”
Rasser’s barn is particularly worth preserving because it represents an impressive example of tension and stress framing, where timbers are held together without the use of pegs, nails or screws. The structure was built by the Conrad Starke family in 1902 and 1903 using massive virgin hardwood timbers shipped to Nebraska from the Northeast. Initially the Starke barn sheltered cattle and hogs, and it later functioned as a dairy barn. The Starke Barn’s central silo is 60 feet tall with what proved to be an impractical (for unloading) diameter of 28 feet. The massive structure boasts a circumference of 400 feet and three functional stories.
The round barn’s heyday spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though short-lived and underappreciated, the genre marks a significant change in our agrarian culture – from a period when minimizing a laborer’s labor mattered, to one with readily available, inexpensive mechanization and rural electrification. Once a farmer had a tractor to plant or plow, in the grand scheme of his routine, it didn’t matter if he saved 100 steps in a day because his barn was round. Look carefully, and you will find remnants of the round barn revolution almost everywhere.
A North American Agricultural Journalists Association member, Wendy Komancheck writes about agriculture, family and the green industry from her home near Ephrata, Pennsylvania.
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