Background for Ohio Timber Framing

As we have learned from earlier sections, Ohio’s rich soils, favorable climate and abundant water sources attracted farmers from very diverse ethnic backgrounds. This provided Ohioans with a rich variety of historic barn types; possibly the richest in the land. Although the different forms of barns represent many diversified farming approaches, the way in which the barns in the early 19th Century were constructed was actually quite consistent, represented two basic modes of building; log and timber framing. This is understandable since over 95% of Ohio was climax forest when settlers first arrived (Ohio’s Natural Heritage, 1980, 9).

Although forests varied in species, the trees chosen by the early carpenters indicate their knowledge of those trees which were the best for barn building. Today, Ohio’s virgin forest can be viewed in very few places other than in Ohio’s barns. In areas where it was available (primarily southeastern Ohio) American chestnut was the tree of choice. It is extremely strong, works well with hand forged edge tools and has great resistance to rot. Where chestnut was not available, white oak was chosen for the same qualities, but was slightly less rot resistance. White oak was readily available in south central, eastern and central western Ohio, but was less available in north, west, or central areas of the state. In these area barns can be found built with beech, elm, sycamore, hemlock and red and black oak. When the best types of trees were available you used them, but if not, you built with what you had. As the renowned Ohio Amish barn builder Jose Miller once said: "The best wood for building a barn is green."

Important to understand when studying early barns is who built them. When the American frontier opened up, the systems of log and timber frame construction were well developed from long standing traditions in Europe and other areas of the world. Today, wonderful examples of timber frame barn and cathedral construction still exist and have been surveyed and documented dating back to the 13th Century in England (Hewett, 1980).

One needs only to study the histories of England, France or Germany to realize that the evolution of timber frame construction was paralleled by the development and maintenance of trades education. This was carried out through Guilds for many centuries and today healthy trades education systems in France and Germany produce highly qualified "companion" and "zimmermen." These were the sources of the skilled builders who came to the New World and brought with them the knowledge and tradition that built the wood framed churches, meeting houses, bridges, farm houses and barns of Colonial America. Studying timber buildings in the Old World and comparing them to those built in the New World quickly shows how these centuries-old traditions arrived with the early builders and were put to use for the most part unchanged.

As one might imagine, these ancient building traditions could only survive unchanged in the New World for just so long. By the time the rich lands of Ohio were beginning to be settled, new forms of barn building had evolved. The majority of barns built in Ohio were built based on traditional forms, but the timber framers were using a system of layout and framing patterns that was truly of American origin. Understanding this evolutionary process can contribute significantly to the process of identifying and dating Ohio’s historic timber barns.