Historic Barns

The Barn, a Symbol of Ohio

ohio historical barns

By Allen G. Noble and Rudy R. Christian

Barns, just as any other building, can be examined scientifically. They can be measured, their functions analyzed, their ethnic connections, if any, can be determined, and the evolution traced. They often can be classified by type and their distribution plotted to reveal their relationship to agricultural patterns, economic conditions, and settlement history.

Another equally important reason to examine barns exists. Today, most Ohioans are born in cities, large or small, live most of their lives in urban environments, and have little experience of farmstead and countryside. Learning about barns helps us to keep alive our Ohio traditions. It is not just coincidence that the Ohio bicentennial logo, placed in every county of the state, celebrates a barn. The barn speaks to Ohio’s long time position of prominence in agricultural productivity. Even today, although less than 10% of Ohioans gain their primary income from farming, agriculture is still one of the major economic forces in the state.

Sadly, the great late 19th century barn structures, which most people think of when they think of agriculture, are rapidly decaying and disappearing. While this loss is lamentable, it is part of a natural process. All buildings decay and wood structures decay faster than structures of many other materials.

Of course, this deterioration can be arrested or even reversed by the careful work of a timber framer. The average farmer, however, often would prefer to let the old barn go and substitute a new one. The reasons are not difficult to find. The cost of a new barn may be no greater expense than fixing up an old one. Furthermore, the old barn is often built on two levels with doors too small to accommodate present-day agricultural machinery. Thus, the new, single story, structure is more efficient.

Because Ohio farms, although shrinking in total numbers, are steadily getting larger in size, in many instances, several buildings are required to adequately house the diverse functions of the farms. Built over time this hodgepodge of structures can be replaced by a single new, large barn. In some instances, by doing this, yearly maintenance, real estate taxes, and other costs can even be reduced. Finally, a new barn sends a message that this farmer is successful, progressive and forward looking, all indications satisfying to the ego.

Unfortunately, as the great timber frame barns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries disappear, they are replaced by a less aesthetically interesting series of structures. As geographer Alvar Carlson noted almost a generation ago, the architecture of new farm buildings increasingly reflects "mere function and the range of items available from catalogs of implement and building dealers. Each barn’s disappearance represents the loss of a major form of the material landscape based upon ethnicity and individuality" (Carlson 1978, 22, 32). The cultural component of the countryside becomes less interesting. Standardization of form of these "neo-barns" as Carlson dubbed them, replaces individualistic timber frame structures with box-like, metal or plastic-clad, single level, metallic frame pole buildings, which appear, as Carlson observed, much like rural factories.

The various regions of Ohio appear different from one another, in large part because the great barns which dominate the countryside are distinctive. To understand these differences one needs to look carefully at the form, function and other characteristics of those barns which are most typical and which make up the majority of the barns of each region. Here we are venturing into the realm of vernacular architecture. We must examine how and why a group built as they did, why some techniques were accepted, and why others were not. The first permanent settlers in an area usually establish their culture so effectively that it becomes "the base of reference for all subsequent change" (Kniffen 1965, 551). Later coming groups often borrow ideas about buildings from earlier settlers. This is one of the major ways ethnic structures change, through contacts with other peoples.

More Barn Topics