Not all monuments are cut from granite and marble or cast in bronze, and America’s countryside is dotted with proof.
As I have traveled the highways and back roads of our country down through the years I have been entertained, sometimes amused and always educated by the unique character of American rural farm architecture. I have in fact developed an abiding love for barns, and as we travel my eyes are always on the lookout for the history which is reflected in these living monuments.
In York County, Pennsylvania, the reverence for neatness and order which so characterized the Pennsylvania “Dutch” settlers of the region is immediately evident and it is rare to see a neglected barn. The local architecture often features a first story erected of round stones and mortar above which upper levels of neatly-painted timber frames rise beneath arched roofs. Good Luck motifs in bright colors often adorn a gable end, and it is not unusual to see an old and honored apple tree or two still guarding the approaches to doors through which wagons loaded with meadow hay once rumbled.
The rolling farm country of Ohio lays claim to another breed of barns usually painted white and two stories or more in height, with three windows appearing like the mouth and eyes of a “happy face” setting off the front elevation. On the western outskirts of Lincoln, Nebraska is a stretch of several miles where one is surprised by the whimsy of some long-ago builder who left behind a “family” of tall white barns of identical design but alternating size, like a string of random pearls fronting the old two-lane highway where now an Interstate passes.
In the New England of my youth reside a mixture of barn styles and designs which testify to the diversity of those who settled these rocky hills, many of them now deserted and cut adrift from the times and people who spawned them; hill farms often left behind when the electric lines, railroad tracks and roads followed the valleys. Many of them – known as bank barns - are actually built into the “convenient” hillsides, with livestock stabled below and hay and feed and access overhead where gravity eases labor.
Perhaps the most interesting of our agricultural monuments are the round barns, pioneered by an imaginative 19th century builder named Horace Greeley Duncan. The idea behind them was one of economic good sense. Cows awaiting milking were tied up around the outside circumference of the structure facing inward where hay, grain and silage could be efficiently dispensed without unnecessary and unequal travel. Legend also suggests that religious fundamentalism played a role in the design. You see, in such a barn there are no corners in which the Devil might hide. One of my favorites still stands near Shelburne, Vermont in a region where round churches are not unknown.
The next time you’re on a family trip around this country of ours, take some time to look for study and enjoy this distinctively iconic remnant of American architecture. Drink in the sometimes elegant, often simple but always optimistic beauty of these “monuments” to the past; our COUNTRY CATHEDRALS.
Author’s Note: Better hurry. They’re disappearing fast!
A century-old “bank barn” scrupulously and lovingly maintained by the late Dr. Margaret Waddington, stands proudly on the Furnace Brook Road in Chittenden, Vermont. Al Cooper Photo