They are so common that they become invisible. Motorists pass by, paying little attention. But consider this an invitation. Drive down almost any Delaware County road and focus on the barns. At first glance they may seem similar, but observe more carefully. Straight roofs and rounded roofs. White, red, yellow and often unpainted. Notice locations – next to the road, across a pastured field, in a valley rather than on a hilltop. Surrounded by black and white Holstein cows. Modernized as an office or battered by time and failing. This is an invitation to travel the back roads and look again at one of the most omnipresent, and threatened, symbols of Delaware County’s rural heritage.
What To Observe -The Roof Line
Work down from the top. Look at a barn’s roofline. Most barns will have either a gable roof or a gambrel roof, although some 20th century barns are rounded into arcs.
A Gable Roof
A multi-story barn with a gable roof could e quite old, most of the first barns constructed in the county had these simple roofs shaped like flattened upside-down Vs. Rectangular in shape, the earliest 19th century barns usually had doors in both of their long sides. A farmer pulled his wagon, an awkward piece of equipment, in one side of the barn, unloaded the hay, and pulled the wagon out the other side. Divided into thirds on the interior, these barns had a central space for threshing grain (separating the kernels from the stalks and hulls) with storage on both sides. A brisk breeze through large open doors blew away the chaff. Shingles on the oldest barn roofs were wood; standing seam metal roofs became popular in the 2nd half of the 19th century.
A Gambrel Roof
A barn with a gambrel roof is a symbol of change. As agriculture, along with the rest of American society, became increasingly mechanized, the barn needed to be reinvented. Cumbersome machines began to lumber about farms making it easier to plant and harvest grain and corn. Noisy steam engines supplemented the horse and the bulging gambrel rooflines provided larger, more open interiors. Mill sawn lumber replaced massive hand-hewn beams. Machine, mass produced nails became common. Innovations in interior construction made it possible for hayforks to lift grain into the barn, slide along a track, and place the harvest anywhere in the barn’s upper level. But most importantly, railroads began to weave through the countryside, making it easier to transport Delaware County’s famous butter to market. Increasingly “milk trains” made hurried runs to New York City delivering fresh milk for urban doorsills. Demand for Delaware County products seemed to multiply with each additional mile of track. More crops, more animals, more machinery all had an impact on how barns looked and how they functioned. The gambrel roof that made each side of the barn looks as though it had a horizontal hinge, provided the additional interior space (as much as 50% more) that Delaware County farmers needed.
The cupola satisfied both the right and the left side of the farmer’s brain. Practical, yes. Decorative, if desired. Barns filled with grain needed ventilation. Without air conditioning, improperly cured hay could explode into a devastating fire. A cupola acted as a safety valve. Less dramatically, grains could mold without air circulation and become inedible. A weather vane (the farmer’s weather station) and perhaps a lightning rod (a farmer’s storm insurance) often jutted even higher into the sky above the cupola.
Some cupolas also added a creative touch to a barn’s exterior. High above the farm landscape, they sat like miniature crowns atop the farmer’s largest investment. When constructed of wood, cupolas often had louvers or window and even a touch of decorative woodcarving. Local barn builders like John Howes often “signed” their designs with distinctive cupolas. In the 20th century, cupola became round, metal, and usually silver in color.
A barn’s height, and the number of levels it has on the inside, also provide clues on age. Look for what is called a bank bridge, a ramp of earth with a wooden bridge into an upper level of the barn. Notice that a substantial stone foundation lifts the barn higher into the air, providing inside space for larger herds of livestock. These “bank barns” appeared in Delaware County just after the Civil War and are still very common. They allowed farmers to drive wagons and later tractors into the barn and unload the grain at the second level. The logic was simple – it was easier to pitch the grain down to the animals that now lived below. Attuned to geography, many farmers used the hillsides of Delaware County to their advantage; bank barns were often built into the north side of a hill, eliminating the need for a second bridge and providing protection from cold, Canadian air.
Silos are relatively late additions to the farm landscape. In the last quarter of the 19th century, articles explaining the benefits of silos first appeared in agricultural journals. Then, practical experience convinced one farmer after another that corn, in fact, could be stored in silos and fed to their animals all winter long. “The preserved fodder possesses an agreeable vinous scent, which is not at all distasteful, but rather otherwise, to the cows to which it is fed,” claimed the American Agriculturist in 1877.
Once the silo became popular, it evolved into the familiar round cylinder with a domed top. Watch for several generations of silos that sometimes exist on a single farm. A few barns, built by the local Tweedie family, still have attached hexagonal silos.
Of course not all farmers in Delaware County were dairy farmers and not all barns were used for grain and cows. Even dairy farms often had smaller building with special uses. Farmsteads commonly had a spring house, corn crib, smoke house, milk house, ice house, and wagon shed. Farms with apple orchards had a cider house. Sugar maple woodlots created demand for a sugar shack. Hops and tobacco crops both required barns designed to store and ventilate the curing harvest. Shelter for poultry required smaller spaces and more sunlight. Farmsteads usually had only one house; they had many barns and sheds.
Finally, Eric Sloane writes that “the bridge builder built barns across rivers.” Systems that support these covered bridges had been tried out in barns first and, although over 50 bridges once crossed the county rivers and streams, only three remain in public use. (Covered bridges remain in Delhi, Delancey and Downsville.)
The oldest barn doors were fastened with hinges, a distinct disadvantage in the snowy upstate New York winter. As early as the 1830s and 40s, barn doors were fitted with tracks like those used on railroad cars allowing them to slide parallel to the side of the barn. Except for poultry barns, barns had relatively few windows above the lowest level used for livestock. Vertical siding made a barn’s large surfaces seem even more massive. Paint was not deemed essential, could be expensive, and certainly was time consuming to apply. Barns with concrete walls and steel framing appeared around the turn of the century. They reduced the risk of fire, discouraged gnawing rats, repelled water, and cleaned up with less labor.
Form Without Function
Delaware County’s native son and keen observer of life and landscape, John Burroughs, wrote that “the wise human eye loves modesty and humility; loves plain, simple structures; loves unpainted barn that took no thought of itself…”
Farming is a dynamic profession. Techniques and equipment change. The barn, for centuries the basic structure of the farm, has continued to evolve; the newest barns are long, one story structures primarily used for cows. Many old barns, however, are now forms without function. As new techniques for grain harvest and storage are developed, the huge interior spaces of the barn are becoming obsolete. Today’s round bales do not require inside storage. Aging barns are difficult to maintain and, as the number of working farms decreases, barns become liabilities to new property owners who have no intention of planting crops or keeping livestock. Each winter, the height of the accumulated snow crushed the aging beams of a few more barns.
Throughout the county you will see stone foundations that support no structure, barn banks that incline into empty air, and solidarity form houses, sole survivors of a once cluttered bustling farmyard.
Check out our slideshow of Barns.
An Age of Barns by Eric Sloane
America’s Barns and Covered Bridges by Eric Sloane
American Barns in a Class by Themselves by Stanley Schuler
Barns of the Genesee Country, 1790-1915 by Daniel Fink
The Barn: A Vanishing Landmark in North America