Saturday, March 5, 2011

Round Barns

Part 1 of a series on Round Barns in Marshall County

History of Round Barns
The origin of round barn construction may date to early European models in France or to the round design plans of churches from the early Christian and medieval periods. Wealthy farmers invested in agricultural experiments like the round barn. George Washington created the earliest known circular structure in the United States; it was a 16-sided barn built in 1793 on his farm in Fairfax, Virginia. The most famous round barn was constructed by the Shakers, a religious group, in 1826 in Massachusetts. The true-circular barn burned in 1865 but was reconstructed later in that year. During the mid 1850s Orson Squire Fowler promoted the importance of octagonal design in houses for a healthier and better life, but his designs did not include patterns for barns.

Round and polygonal barn construction in Indiana began during the 1870s but did not become popular until about 1900. Nathan Pearson Henley is credited with creating the first round barn in Indiana near New Castle. He constructed an octagonal barn in 1874. However, the majority of round barns constructed in the Hoosier state took place between 1900 and 1920 with the peak year being 1910. Included in the round barn development were polygonal barns constructed with multiple sides including six, eight, nine, ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, and eighteen sides. The barns also had a variety of roof types that included domed and gambrel roofs; the gambrel had two and three pitch variations as well as sectional variations. The barns were typically constructed around a central silo which supported the roof allowing the remaining interior of the upper level free of support posts. Constructing the true-circular barns required the use of lumber that was easily bent for forming concrete and sometimes for use of siding and interior bracing. Freshly cut sycamore and elm proved to work the best for these purposes.

Round barns were promoted by agricultural authorities and through farm magazines such as the Farm Journal. Often the barn developer published his own technique of construction in the farm magazines. Professor F. H. King of the University of Wisconsin conducted research on the development of circular silos which led him to design a true-circular barn. His design became the prototype for future round barn development. Round barns were most popular in the Midwest with high numbers constructed in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. Indiana led the nation in the creation of round barns and continues today to have more extant round barns than any other state. However, the loss of these structures is very apparent. Round barns were surveyed in Indiana between 1985-1988; the survey identified 226 round barns of an estimated 250-300 which originally existed. By 1992 only 111 remained of the 226 surveyed with an estimated 40% loss of these structures since 1960.

As the last remaining example of a true circular barn in Marshall County, the Ramsay-Fox Round Barn in West Twp. exemplifies a farm that was on the cutting edge of technology in construction of buildings for agricultural uses in 1911. As agriculture as an industry changed, the architecture of farms began to change also. While round barns were probably the most significant shift in barn design, the industry, with larger equipment and more livestock on larger farms, continued to create more demand for change in farm buildings. A 1953 newspaper carried this headline “Pole Barn-New Innovation in Marshall Farm Building”; it was located on the Pearson Farm in Marshall County, IN. The pole building allowed for larger machinery and more livestock and continues to be the most prevalent building type constructed for agricultural uses today.

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