Big on Barns

Big on Barns

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Find our more about The Trustees work in the Highlands.

Download Bonnie Parsons' booklet, Barns of the Highlands (PDF).

Bonnie Parsons is Senior Planner and Manager of Historic Preservation Programs for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of Special Places, The Trustees' member magazine. To subscribe, join The Trustees today.

Stop in a Highlands community and ask if there are any “good barns” in town: you’ll likely get a quick response, if not exact directions. Almost 300 years after colonial farmers first raised roof beams in these hills and valleys, the Highlands – 38 rural towns between the Connecticut and Housatonic rivers – retain an abundance and rich variety of barns that span centuries.

By Bonnie Parsons

This bounty may be attributed to regional economics and to the persistence of agriculture, but credit must also go to the people who’ve preserved them over generations. And there’s a growing community who appreciates them.

Building a barn was always one of a farmer’s costliest endeavors: in time, timber and other materials, and in the hiring of skilled framers. Rather than replace them, sage farmers adapted their barns to changing agricultural practices. Barns were moved, or disassembled, and their timber reused. They were expanded and patched; raised on new foundations; re-sided; and opened up with windows and ventilators.

Just as they followed familiar English building practices for their homes, settlers built their barns as they had known them in England. An “English” barn, built as a rectangle beneath a gabled roof, was typically windowless until about 1800, when a transom light may have been included above the main doors, as well as a few wall windows. Up until then, air circulated through narrow gaps between the siding boards. The technical excellence of these barns and the sturdy hardwoods used in their construction ensured that they survive throughout the region.

After the American Revolution, farmers needed more space for larger herds, more hay and equipment; barns were expanded with additional bays. Eventually, even extended and reconfigured English barns were deemed too small and inefficient. Thus, another innovation: the “New England” or “gable-front” barn. By framing a barn lengthwise, with doors at each end, it became a labor-saving building to which any number of additional bays could be added. Appearing by 1830, the newly configured structure quickly became popular in the Highlands region.

By mid-century, farm journals were describing how dairy herds consumed less food in winter if they were kept warmer, so farmers closed the gaps between barn boards that previously had been left unsealed for air flow. An unfortunate result was that while cows ate less, they also got sick more often in the damp, still air; the moisture also caused barns to deteriorate. In response, the journals promoted new air-flow concepts, including the use of ventilators or cupolas placed on barn roofs.

Farmers adopted other pivotal practices. One was the collection of manure for spreading on fields. Collection was made less tedious when farmers began building or moving their barns to a slope, so that a basement level, open on one side, was created. This “side-hill” barn allowed the farmer to toss manure to the lower level where it was stored and transported only once, directly onto the fields. Farmers soon moved their stables to the lower level, so fodder could be dropped to animals from above, thus easing the process of feeding large herds.

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