History of the American Barn

Discover the interesting history of American barn styles.

  • Photo by Londie G. Padelsky

  • Photo by Kirsten Lie-Nielsen

  • Photo by Joseph Stanski

  • Photo by Willard Clay/AKM Images

  • Photo courtesy Michael Emmons

  • Photo by Eliot Cohen

  • Photo by Joseph Stanski

  • Photo by Michael P. Gadomski

  • Photo by Terry Wild Stock

  • Photo by Michael P. Gadomski

Sprawling throughout the rural American landscape are iconic symbols of our forefathers’ tireless hard work and ingenuity: the American barn, in all shapes, sizes, and variations — modern-day pyramids built by our agricultural ancestors. Despite their rich legacies and strong timber frames, so many of these structures have been left empty, doors loose in the wind, as new generations head to the city and abandon the old family farm.

When my partner and I took on restoring our late-1800s Yankee barn, we had no idea how much history would pass through our hands. We had only begun to appreciate the amount of labor that had gone into its original construction. These seemingly simple structures were precisely crafted to fit the needs of the farmer and the farm. And spanning the history of American geography, they have changed to suit the trends of farming.

Humble beginnings

The first barns were not American by design, but were European-style longhouses that included stables and sleeping quarters. Builders utilized skills many had learned in creating the arching hallways of cathedrals to create roomy and functional farm outbuildings. Brought to America along with the first settlers, the oldest style of barn still graces our landscapes in the classic “English barn” style.

English-style barns were built from the 1600s through the 1800s, and had a large, open central floor for wheat threshing. On either side of the floor were small stabling areas for the family horse and hay storage. As grain production was the principle focus of the first American farmers, the English barn was designed with the largest area of space dedicated to threshing with few or no windows, and only a single door on the long side of the barn. In fact, it was not until the 1800s that the connection between plentiful light and healthy farm animals was made and windows became more common.

Most farmers were not then, and are not today, professional carpenters. One of the most fascinating aspects of barn construction is the common use of simple farmstead creativity. A barn’s  construction often revolved around the farmer’s schedule, which was always full, and his skill level, which was untrained yet honed by years of providing for himself and his family. Building a barn could take years, with frames being laid out by one generation, while the next put the final hinges on the doors.

Changing times

As with any structure built for functionality, this design did not follow one pattern for long. By the mid-1800s, the English style was being adapted and changed to suit the changing nature of agriculture. The first major change was the addition of basements. Farmers began building barns on hillsides to allow for a full basement with lower-level ground access on one side, while the uphill side allowed upper-level access to the first floor. This particular style, called a bank barn, was developed to be most efficient during harvest time. A hay wagon could be driven into the central bay on the upper level and unloaded without the need for an elevator. Soon, basements were being used as a place to let manure turn to compost, as well as housing for some of the animals.

Terri Batt
3/20/2020 5:19:04 PM

Our neighbor grew up on his family's farm that was given to him by a millionaire that loved agriculture. The barn was built by the millionaire and his family from redwood lumber from the family's lumber company out in California in the early 1900's. To my knowledge, it is the ONLY redwood barn east of the Mississippi River. Sadly, the roof is in poor repair and is starting to show in other parts of the barn. I wish there was someway to get that barn re-roofed to preserve this historic treasure.

10/10/2018 4:05:27 AM

My Dad on his farm in Nebraska was a genius. He designed and built, single–handed, during one winter, a new cow/hay barn! And not a small feat, either! First, he built and assembled the walls. How he assembled the roof rafters flat, at first, then raised them one by one single-handedly was just beyond the belief of other farmers in our area, a corner of North–East Nebraska. I would drop a picture of it in here, if it was possible. :)

7/20/2018 7:56:28 AM

How crazy is it to buy an old dairy barn and move it to West Virginia and fix it up to live in it?

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