Friday, October 2, 2015

Barns, Round Barns

Barns were once the center of activity on family farms. You could make the case that the barn was the most important building on the farm place. It was almost a Barn Culture. But we’ve lost that.

The barn served as a machine shed housing those early versions of power plants – horses and mules. A barn might house a full-fledged dairy operation or just where Bessie was milked. A corner stall might have a sow and her pigs, or some sheep.

One section of the barn might be a grain bin, the handy source of fuel for those early power plants, milkers and other livestock. And the haymow stored feed from last year’s hay crop and was often home to a few litters of kittens.

Barns were important.

Settlers moving west from the farms along the eastern seaboard were well versed in the value and
This is likely the last photo of the barn on the Johnson-Jasnoch farm northwest
of Sutton. The Google Earth imagery date for the Sutton area is 4/17/2014,
three weeks before the tornado stuck the area on Mothers' Day.
variations of barns. A barn study could be the basis of an entire tour of New England.

Farmers among our European ancestors had developed barn construction to an art. Family living quarters were often located next to the barn – body heat from a few dozen cows could keep the adjacent living quarters almost comfortable through the coldest Scandinavian winter.

Barns have been important for a long time.

Allow me to tell a couple of personal barn stories.

The farm I grew up on had two barns, the Horse Barn and the Cow Barn.

The Horse Barn had individual stalls for up to ten animals plus a feed bin, a lean-to machine shed and a huge haymow. It was a red barn with the remnants of harnesses hanging on the walls testifying to its early role on the farm. It was built at some undetermined date around 1900; it proudly served several generations right up to Mothers’ Day of 2014 when a tornado destroyed it taking bits and pieces and a century of memories off to the Northeast.

One of those memories was passed along by my father.

John Peterson was a Swedish bachelor farm hand who worked for my Grandfather while Dad was growing up. Johns was Swedish old school in that the hired help did not go into the house where the Lady lived. John lived in the southwest stall of the Horse Barn. That may not have been all that uncommon.

Another story about John was when he left to return to Sweden as World War I approached. He was 30 years old and feared he would be conscripted into the U.S. Army. While crossing the Atlantic he realized that the Swedish government would have an even tighter hold on his services. He negotiated employment with the ship’s captain and seems to have spent the war as a sailor.

At the close of the war, John disembarked in Eastern Canada, walked west, took a left turn somewhere around Manitoba and returned to his stall in Fred Johnson’s barn.

Or so I was told. It could be an embellished story, or parts possibly fabricated. Don’t know. But the fellow stayed in America living out his final days in the Harvard home. He is buried in the Harvard Cemetery, John B. Peterson (1887-1987).

The Cow Barn was a lesser building, smaller, unpainted and partially hidden behind the Horse Barn. Dad and I bonded during twice daily milkings of four to six cows while listening to KFAB on an ancient radio wedged between the floor joists of the haymow.

Local folklore about this octagonal barn near Clay Center claimed that its
story included roles as a roller-skating rink, a dance hall and as a meeting
hall for a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
There was a rigid tax system payable to the permanent occupants of the Cow Barn in the form of a couple of ounces of fresh, warm milk in a cast iron skillet along the back wall. Any failure to make the payment resulted in noisy, frantic scurrying that would not subside until those cats were fed, from each and every cow.

Most who lived on farms can relate similar barn stories. I am particularly fortunate in that both sides of my family had such stories. My Mother’s family had a locally famous barn.

The Cassell farm straddled Big Sandy Creek for the mile north of Highway 74 west of Ong – the Jim and Virginia Moore farm. David Cassell, my grandfather and uncles built a new barn on the farm sometime, likely in the mid-teens. Those uncles were between six and 23 years old in 1915. That barn worked its way into many conversations at family gatherings.

The story I need to relate here comes mainly from my Mother, the ninth and last of the Cassell clan who was three in 1915.

While the barn was still “new” the boys hosted Saturday night dances in their barn, in the haymow. Mom recalled peeking out from behind her mother’s skirt as the yard was filled with teams and buggies. The Cassell boys were musicians so I speculate they provided the dance music.

When the dance wound down, late into the night, the girls would all come into the house and sleep on the floors throughout that house where the Moore’s live today. The boys slept in the barn. On Sunday morning the teams were hitched to the buggies and everyone headed home – an early vintage Clay County date. Does that sound like fun?

It was never clear how often this happened but we understand it continued for a number of years.

Barns were more than a place for cows and horses.

Others could relate their own stories of barns, barns that were generally very similar.

But like many things, there was a mainstream barn culture and an alternative rogue culture that went against the grain. There were Round Barns.

Roger Welsch wrote an article, “Nebraska’s Round Barns” for the Spring 1970 issue of Nebraska History Magazine. He identified 36 round barns in the state most south of the Platte between Hastings and Lincoln. Four round barns were in Clay County, one in Webster and two each in Nuckolls, Fillmore and York counties. That is, eleven of those 36 were in Clay or surrounding counties.

The University of Illinois Experimental Farm in Champaign championed the round barn design. Three round barns were
built before 1913 lending the schools support to the niche of round barn advocates across the Midwest.
Barn No. 3 was a mile south of Fairfield. There was an article in the newspaper a couple of years ago stating that this barn was to be razed. I haven’t been by it recently, perhaps it’s gone. It was, in fact, actually round, with a 27 foot radius. Mr. Welsch’s definition of “round” included not only circular but also any polyhedral construction of more than five equilateral sides.

Again, everything is on the internet. I found a site that lists all of Mr. Welsch’s barns from this book – it was posted in late June, after the first draft of this article.

The University of Illinois at Champaign figures in the story. Some of the managers at the Experimental Farm were Round Barn Zealots around 1900. One of those guys had built 8 round barns in Indiana before 1902. He caused three round barns to be built at the school between 1907 and 1913.

Round barns were contentious.

Round barn aficionados, and believe me, they did exist, tended to be extremely serious about the topic just like the Illinois fellow. They were in the minority. The majority thought these guys were “out there.”

Fans of the round barns pointed out the efficiency of the footprint, they found handling livestock easier and dairy farmers found the shape conducive to their use. Several round barns were built around a silo putting the feed source for livestock right in the middle of things. That feature was appreciated even by skeptics.

One argument called on the “shape” of animals to defend round barns. Some study found that cattle and horses in a confined space naturally tend to leave their heads somewhat stationary while their hind quarters spread out moving back and forth. That is, horses and cattle aren’t rectangular, they are pie shaped. The point was that heading horses or dairy cows or toward the center of the round barn was natural. Ain’t science wonderful?

Nebraska round barns were concentrated south of the Platte and especially between Hastings and Lincoln. This map
was included with Roger Welsch's article in Nebraska History Magazine, Spring 1970.
Mr. Welsch’s Barn No. 13 was (is?) three miles east of Edgar and was built in 1910 with one of those central silos which was removed in 1920. Why?

No. 23 was a mile west and two miles south of Clay Center, built about 1915. Welsch describes it as one of the most striking barns in the state, 8 sides each 20 feet long, a central silo 20 feet in diameter. He spent four years researching his book and got technical, especially about roofs. He really liked barn roofs. This barn had a “gambrel” roof – you’ll have to read it yourself – the book is in the museum.

Barn No. 34 was two miles northeast of Sutton. When Mr. Welsch visited it in 1967 he was told it was to be torn down soon. The barn was another octagonal structure with 17 ½ foot sides and a gable roof. He described the frame as “balloon” and again you’ll have to read the book – I’m long winded enough here.

The two Fillmore County round barns were two miles east of Shickley and only 100 feet apart. One barn was six miles west and one south of York and was six-sided. A 15-sided barn was nine miles southeast of Nelson. The sides were 14 feet long and it had a central silo.

15-sided it says. So what do you call a 15-sided polygon? Yes, round is a good approximation. But mathematicians won’t let you get away with that. The internet knows all. Several websites are devoted to polygons, for a math and just a Gee-Whiz perspective.

A 15-sided polygon is a “pendedecagon” though when no one is watching, the mathematicians will call it a 15-gon.

But barns, of conventional design or real cool round ones have largely faded from usefulness and become nostalgic reminders of a past when farms were diverse and livestock a crucial part of every farm. Barns dominated for centuries in the long-established parts of our civilized world, but in our area with less than a century and a half of history the story of our barns is little more than a short story.

The Starke Brothers' barn east of Red Cloud may have been the largest round barn in the nation with a diameter of 130 feet and 32 foot high walls. The central silo was 28 feet across. The roof design was called "gambrel" with a center dormer providing access to the loft on the third floor. The bottom level was for animals, the middle was a machine shed. A potato cellar was under the ramp to the main floor. 

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