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Home » HISTORY in ME » MAINE (all topics) » Our New England Barns
Wind Rotary: This mid-19th century New England Barn has sliding exit doors at the rear.
Our New England Barns

Part 2 – The Emergence and Ascendancy of the New England Barn

By Don Perkins | March 07, 2011

Previous Article in this Series

Don Perkins continues to unfold the hidden history of New England Barns.

As we discovered in the first installment of our series on New England barns, following the arrival of the first colonists, small English barns dotted the region’s landscape, but the New England climate revealed shortcomings in the design.   As livestock, as opposed to grain, increasingly became the focus for many farms the 19th century was a time to rethink our farm buildings with some good old fashioned “Yankee ingenuity.”

North Yarmouth: This circa 1890 New England Barn has its main entrance on the gable end and a rooftop cupola.

This was when barns reached their heyday, their zenith - increasing in size as dairy farming took hold to become a large industry and farmers realized the necessity of fertilizing the farm soil. So how did these most unique of buildings adapt to meet these challenges? Enter the New England, or Yankee, Barn.

The Shortcomings of the English Barn

Climate and floor plan configuration were the primary undoing of the English design. With main entrances along the eaves wall, snow and rain dumped off the roof, eroded the entranceway and soaked the farmer as he entered and left his English barn. Doors on English barns typically swung outwards on hinges and as any New Englander knows, a large outwardly-swinging door requires a lot of snow shoveling during the long winter months.

These large doors were also extremely dangerous if they weren’t securely fastened to the barn when open; strong winds could tear the hinged doors clean away.   To solve this problem, barn doors were mounted on rails so that rather than swinging open they slid from side to side. Interestingly, some believe these rolling doors were adapted from railroad car designs.

Morse Interior: Early barns were not sided and so were drafty.

In England farmers leased land from nobility and so farm sizes were pretty much fixed in size, but in New England a family farm could be a couple of hundred acres (or more).   As the farm became more established, animals and crops increased and the barn needed to grow with it.

The English barn hadn’t been designed with expansion in mind; its center aisle goes across the building rather than parallel to its ridge. If the farmer added to the rear of an English barn the sidewall just gets lower because of the sloping roof.   Putting additions on each gable end was a better solution, but these new sections were further and further away from the main entrance.   Servicing all parts of the building with a horse and wagon also becomes more difficult as there’s little room to turn the horses around to exit.

Somewhere along the line a farmer had an epiphany, put the main entry door on the gable end with a center aisle running the length of the building with another set of doors at the far end for the horse and wagon to simply exit! Brilliant, eh? This configuration eventually became the barn style most of us are familiar with today. Snow and rain drained away; a farmer could easily service all parts of the building with a horse and wagon. Expansion was as easy as adding to the rear, which just made a longer configuration of the original shape.

“Pure Air”

In the Victorian era the concept of “pure air” was advocated by the farm journals of the day to ensure the health of livestock as well as keeping hay fresh, nutritious and palatable. Even animals like a tasty meal, right? Save for the cracks that appeared between wallboards, English barns had little ventilation. To ensure a weather-tight structure some farmers put batten strips over the joints. Tightening up a barn is fine for a building that primarily houses grain, but fill this structure with animals exhaling water vapor, and yes, urinating and defecating, and you’ve got a problem - especially in winter when doors are shut tight and animals spend little if any time outdoors.

Intervale Farm: This early 19th century farm has an open access to the cellar on the far left.

The animals produced heat that carried water vapor and other gases high into the hay where it became ever more musty and foul.   Beads of water could condensate on the underside of the cold roof boards and then drip down upon everything in a form of precipitation. Not good. Around the mid-1800’s cupolas, small structures that provided ventilation, were added to barn roofs to provide fresh air for the livestock and to reduce condensation and allow gases to escape, so ensuring “pure air.”

After a few seasons, New England fields typically needed fertilizing with farmers using manure to enrich the soil with nutrients. English barns usually had no basement and manure was pitched outdoors in a pile which had degraded by the time spring rolled around.

The solution was to build a “manure basement” for the barn with the farmer digging out a side of their barn, or as became the rule, building the structure on a bank or slope with one side accessible so a cart could be easily loaded.   The rooftop cupolas often had chutes built into the wall running all the way to the basement where the manure was kept to provide the necessary ventilation.

How majestic these structures became. Built on slopes with their fancy cupolas, they resemble ships sailing on a sea of pastoral grassland.

In the third and final part of this series, we’ll discover how technology, diseases and other factors further changed the shape and style of New England barns in the 20th century.

To find out more about barns visit Don’s website.   He can also be contacted at: don@ourbarns.com.

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