A barn is the heart of a farm. It is a home for the animals and a place to store the crops after the harvest. The first barns in America were built from the trees that grew on the land. Farmers cut them down to create fields to grow their plants, then they used the wood to build their homes and their barns. Barns are necessary buildings. In the 19th Century, when America was young, they made it possible for families to travel into the wilderness and settle the land. A classic wooden barn, called a timberframe barn, was also large and impossible for a single family to build. The solution was for a community to come together and help each other build their barns. This was called a barn raising, and it was possible because the community had to depend on each other to survive. It also brought them closer together. Some communities, particularly the Amish and Mennonites continue this tradition today. Modern machines brought modern farming practices. As tractors and combines became common in the 20th Century, the needs of the farm changed and what we call a barn changed too. Today’s barns are often metal-sided buildings with concrete or gravel floors. They are built using machines too, construction cranes and electric saws. It only takes a handful of builders instead of the dozens required in the past. The barn however serves the same purpose. It stores the harvest and houses the animals that give a farm its heart.
A barn requires a lot of wood. Fortunately wood was as close as the nearest tree. Chopping down trees on the farm had the added benefit of clearing land to create fields for planting. Trees were often cut down long before a barn was built to give the wood time to dry out. Each piece was then milled to its specific need. Once all the lumber was prepared, an open call would be made to the community surrounding the farm. A barn was far too large a structure for a family to build on its own. It took dozens of workers to turn the piles of wood into a functional building. This not only helped build the barn, but the community as well. It brought everyone closer together. Once the barn’s location was chosen and a clearing made, a stone retaining wall would be constructed. Floor beams and floor boards were laid in without nails. Under this floor would be stalls for the animals. On top of the floor grains would be threshed and hay and straw stored.
Barns were constructed of a series of bents. These large frames of timber were pounded together on the ground with large mallets. There were no nails, only wooden pegs and tenon/mortise joints. Each bent was a massive thing. In the age before machines it took several people using 16-foot poles called pikes to lift the bent into position. The community would have to repeat this four to six times to complete the frame. The exterior of a barn served two functions. It had to protect the harvest and animals from the elements. A stone slate roof protected from rain, wooden siding from wind, and grounded lightning rods from storms. But barns also had to breathe. Hay especially generates heat when it’s first harvested. Vents were installed to let heat escape. Doors had to be big enough for wagons and animals to enter. They needed hinges and rails to allow them to swing wide enough and slide with ease. Building was an all day activity in which family, friends and neighbors gave of their time. All that labor made for hungry workers. It was the responsibility of the host family to provide food. In the case of the Rohr barn raising, while men built the barn, women prepared “110 beef roasts, five hams, 100 loaves of bread, and 100 pies.”* *Albert Hise, former Massillon Museum curator