Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Eastman Johnson:  In the Hayloft, c.1877-78, Oil on Canvas, San Diego Museum of Art

I go positively gaga over barns.  I love them.  And, the older the better.  When the freezing cold of winter seizes up almost everything in these north woods and there's not a whiff of herbal fragrance in the air to remind me of summer pleasures, I go into the barn where the smell of hay still lingers.  Our big red barn has been around for almost 200 years and during that time the earthy aroma of livestock and herbage has seeped into just about every pore of the old beams, rafters and floorboards. And I love it there.

William Sidney Mount:  Dancing On The Barn Floor, 1831, Museums of Stony Brook,
Stony Brook, NY

We actually have two barns here at Juniper Hill but the oldest, and smaller of the two, was turned into living space long before we arrived.  When we recently remodeled the kitchen, which now makes up one end of the smaller barn, we tore up the floor and underneath it found, in one corner, the most beautifully hand-crafted stone well that still contained water some twenty-feet below its surface.  I believe this was the first well dug on the property, dating from the late 1700's, as it was positioned just outside what would have been the back door to the original gambrel house.  When the small barn was constructed sometime after the house was built in 1789, it was connected to the house and the well was then simply incorporated into the interior of the barn and used as a source of water for the animals, while a new "drinking well" was dug elsewhere on the property.  This incorporation of a water source for livestock right inside the barn was apparently a common practice in New England as connecting outbuildings were added to primary dwellings and new wells were dug.

The original hand-hewn beams and rafters on the interior of the small barn that now
contains the kitchen--where the old well was found--and a library/family room.

The big red hay barn.

Around 1830, as the farm grew, our big red barn was built which was then connected to the older but smaller barn by the addition of two carriage sheds.  The big barn was used primarily for storing hay but it also accommodated livestock. All of the original pens, hay-holes, and troughs used for the winter quartering of animals are still in place.  This entire design--often referred to as the big-house, little-house, back-house, barn style-- was repeated over and over across New England as farmers did everything they could to keep themselves under roof and avoid having to wade through deep snow in the winter in order to complete their chores.  And I thank them every winter day for sticking to their architectural guns!

The huge barn at Elm Farm, Francestown, NH

The evolution of the barn in America would make for an interesting interdisciplinary study in architecture, agricultural practice and local culture and could probably keep a Ph.D. candidate busy for a couple of years, if you could find one these days that was interested.  Early settlers in America who were eager to escape the tyranny of one overlord or the other wanted nothing to do with structures that resembled the old tithe barns of Europe, where at least ten-percent of their hard-won harvest would end up.  After all, one of the reasons they fled to America was to escape taxation (and you know how that worked out).  So, they rejected many of the architectural elements of those ancient structures, like the large "cruck," or curved brace, and the long roof which rested its entire weight on uprights within the barn.  Many of the old tithe barns were extensions of Abbeys and held "contributions" destined for the church, and the construction of the interiors of those old barns was very church-like.

Interior of the tithe barn at Lacock Abbey, UK.  Lacock Village has been used as a filming
location for a number of productions including Pride and Prejudice and Cranford.

Another famous tithe barn in Glastonbury, UK where this famous dueling scene was
filmed by Stanley Kubrick for his oscar winning production of Barry Lyndon.

image courtesy of Warner Bros. pictures

In America, most barns were first built by the craftsmen farmers themselves with help from their communities, rather than by a specialized labor force of housewrights or carpenters.  And so, vernacular styles began to develop that were dictated mostly by the types of building materials that were available, the climate, and the kinds of crops that the farmer needed to protect from the weather.  There were the stone, banked barns of Pennsylvania, the log barns of the southern mountains, the English type and connecting New England barns, the Dutch gambrel-roofed barns of New York, the round barns of the Shakers, and the tobacco barns of Connecticut and the southern states.  And then there were corn barns, sugar houses, corn cribs, smoke houses, forge barns, sheep barns, cider houses, wagon sheds, ice houses, wash houses, summer kitchens, hop barns and oast, milk, and pig houses.  

Alvan Fisher: Corn Husking Frolic, 1828, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In 1830, when our big red barn was built, farmers made up about 75% of the labor force compared to about 2% today.  And, if you didn't identify yourself as a farmer in those early days--even if you were a doctor, lawyer, or village idiot, you still farmed. Quite simply, it was the only way to sustain yourself.  So, there were barns and outbuildings everywhere, of all shapes and sizes.

Eric Sloane:  The Red Barn, c. 1960, Oil on Masonite

Sadly, today the old barns around the country are crumbling before our eyes. Most of the outbuildings have already disappeared.  The rapid decrease in the number of farms, the availability of more "modern" building materials, and the cost of upkeep and maintenance of the old wooden structures have all contributed to their decline. Luckily, some states like New Hampshire have recognized that many old barns and farm buildings are important scenic landmarks that help tell the story of our nation's agricultural heritage and they have thus instituted tax incentives that encourage the preservation of these buildings.  If you're the owner of one of these treasures and you get as ga-floofy as I do over them, you can click here for more information on the New Hampshire program.

William Henry Hunt:  The Interior of a Barn,  Watercolor and pencil, 1837

The barn was usually the first structure that was erected when a family moved to a new land.  The timbers and materials used were almost always better than those used in the house.  From the roof--the most important element--to the threshing floor used for the preparation of grains, to the sidebays, used for the winter storage of hay and livestock, the barn served as the architectural link to a family's survival. It seems almost impossible to think that, with the passing of just a couple hundred years, these old sanctuaries of life now represent little more than a curious collection of wood and stone in the lives of most people.    

Further Reading: (click on book's image for more info or to order)

Hubka, Thomas C.  Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New England.

Endersby, E., Greenwood, A., and Larkin, D.  Barn: The Art of a Working Building.

Sloane, Eric  An Age of Barns.


  1. Great post Joe--and wonderful paintings and photographs too! Like you, I will never tire of their scent or the peacefulness and history they contain. It is sad to watch so many of them fall into extinction. I think I must have been a barn animal in a past life as it's one of my favorite places to be. Or maybe I was just a milkmaid happily milking away. Nonetheless, sad to see that way of life also disappearing.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more, Maude. It is very sad to watch them fall into extinction. When I need a little "good barn news" I will travel to Pa. to visit family, where the Amish are still "raising" these wonderful buildings in the traditional way. Thanks for your nice comment!

  3. Wonderful post have such a great way with detail. I am very barns and dream of living in one day with walls filled to the brim with all our artwork. It must be painted red..just like your big fed hay barn and have a fabulous bookshelf and fireplace and a space with a view for reading and writing. Wait a minute...I think I see the perfect spot in your post! :)

    Best wishes Joe...stay warm!


  4. This was so interesting, Joe. I guess that I took the smell of barns for granted before reading this. But even my little, relatively young goat barn gained its own signature aroma in no time. You're a fellow goatherd, so you know that goats are meticulous -- that isn't the source of the smell. But the smell of hay is heaven -- good hay, that is. Thanks for the heads up, Jeanne. I live in a converted barn and was entertaining the idea of painting it in a hue other than barn red this time around. Maybe it wouldn't have the same karma. Maybe it would never forgive me...
    And yes, Maude -- you were a milkmaid in a past life.

  5. Thanks Jeanne and Tovah so much for your wonderful comments! But I have a confession to make about our red barn. As Tovah-who is good at keeping secrets- already knows, it's only half red. Both our barn and house sit facing what used to be an old coach road. And, in the early 1800's it was common to use clapboards, or shingles, to finish off the front of a barn facing the road (the money side, as it's sometimes called) while finishing off the rest of it, further away from view, with cheaper, vertical boards. And to save even more money (farmers were frugal in those days), it was common practice to paint only the front side, finished off with the clapboards, and allow the rest of the barn to simply weather grey. At some point in the history of our barn, a previous owner also decided to add red paint to the side of the barn that faces what is now the garden. So, we now have a barn with two sides red and two weathered grey. Does that count for half a karma? --Joe

  6. That's it! I'll paint only the money side of the barn from now on! You just saved me a boodle! But don't tell anybody. (Joe, I think your secret is out...)

  7. I'm definitely with you on the barn thing. I remember driving through Austria with my parents about 30 years ago, with them shouting "Nice barn!" every few miles and the car nearly veering off the mountain roads as they pointed. I now annoy my children in the same way.


Thank you for your comments!

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