Posted By: VintageDocs Category: Mechanical & Farm, Structures
The construction of round barns was an early 20-Century phenomenon with a rich and surprisingly controversial history. These barns, heavily marketed by aggressive builders and architects as the most efficient barn design, once dotted the countryside of the upper Midwest, particularly Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. This is the story about the men who built these unique barns; their lives are as interesting as the barns they built.
The quest for a better barn began with mid 19th-century octagonal designs. Orson Squire Fowler was a well-known writer who was at the time the foremost authority on the strangely popular subject of phrenology.
Fowler also had an influential book on architecture – Home For All, a book [view excerpt] published in 1848, that detailed many construction techniques and touted the advantages of octagonal structures.
Fowler spends considerable time laying out the pros and cons of various styles of buildings, and ends with the conclusion that the octagonal shape, being close to a spherical design, and much easier to build, was the best form of a dwelling:
“But is the square form the best of all? Is the right angle the best angle? Can not some radical improvement be made, both in the outside form and the internal arrangement of our houses?
Nature’s forms are mostly spherical. She makes ten thousand curvilineal to one square figure. Then why not apply her forms to houses? Fruits, eggs, tubers, nuts, grains, seeds, trees,* etc., are made spherical, in order to inclose the most material in the least compass. Since, as already shown, a circle incloses more space for its surface, than any other form, of course the nearer spherical our houses, the more inside room for the outside wall, besides being more comfortable.
Of course the octagon, by approximating to the circle, incloses more space for its wall than the square, besides being more compact and available.”
Fowler was one of the first in a line of writers and builders that promoted the idea that the rounded structure used space more efficiently, and per square foot, was cheaper to build. Octagonal homes and barns were a fairly popular fad in the mid-1800’s, owing to Fowler’s writings.
In 1876, farmer and professor Elliot Stewart began publishing details of his octagonal barn built on his New York farm in farm publications like American Agriculturist [view excerpt]. Stewart’s innovation was a self-supporting roof, obviating the need for support posts inside the barn’s work area.
Stewart’s widely-publicized design was copied by many farmers in New York, as they were attracted to the design’s economy of construction, wind resistance, and open floor plan. More than a dozen octagonal barns were built in New York through 1890. The next big barn innovation would come from Prof. Franklin H. King of Wisconsin.
Franklin King was a professor at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) College of Agriculture. One of King’s innovations was the round tower silo. The concept of using silage, animal feed stored in an air-tight enclosure, was a new idea at the time. In 1889, King’s brother asked him to design and construct a new barn to house 80 cows, 10 horses, cleaning alleys, a silo, a granary and sufficient storage space for dry fodder. The result was a 92’ diameter true cylindrical barn and silo combination. King’s design incorporated a central round silo that held up the roof and walls framed with lightweight dimensional framing lumber (called a ‘balloon frame’).
Most barns of this era used heavy timber post and frame construction, Post and frame timbers were difficult to handle, and required special wood joinery skills, requiring mortise and tenon joints, held in place with wooden pegs. King’s design was constructed with lightweight framing lumber, which was beginning to become available at local sawmills, and could be worked with simple tools.
King published details of his new barn in the 1890 Annual Report of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station [view excerpt] his article was widely reprinted, and his innovative design would become the prototype for round barns to come. The wide acceptance of this publication convinced many farmers across the upper Midwest of the advantages of the round barn design – lower cost, structural strength, more open space and efficiency, and answered many skeptical questioners asking ‘why build round barns’?
Round barns were the first true multi-purpose storage buildings for farmers. Up to this time, farmers would have more than one building to house feed, another for animals, etc, which necessitated lots of carrying heavy loads from one area to another.
Round barns, with their central silos, had a feeding area around the base of the silos were less work for the farmer. The animals were faced inward in a circle, with wedge-shaped stalls that kept the animals pointed in the proper direction. From the feed alley, the farmer could access the fodder in the silo as well as hay and straw in the overhead hay mow, which was delivered to the main floor through drop chutes. Feeding was a snap, with less walking and carrying of material. Animal waste was directed to a trough at the barn’s perimeter, collected and then moved to the fields as fertilizer.
King’s design proved popular, with its publication in a wide variety of farm periodicals; but it was the carpenters of Indiana that took the concept to the next level.
Benton Steele, a self-made carpenter, draftsman, and architect with a third-grade education that became perhaps the best advocate for the round barn. As a carpentry apprentice, his talent began to shine with his ability to draw plans and blueprints. It was said Steele was fascinated by the round building shape because his Great Aunt had an octagonal home.
Steele became a talented draftsman and architect, as well as a savvy marketer of his round barns, advertising heavily in publications. Steele adapted Franklin King’s design and caught the attention of the farm community after building a 100 – foot diameter barn in Dearborn County for Indianapolis legislator Wymond Beckett This barn was one of the first true circular structures with the marvelous innovation of a double-pitched, self-supporting roof. These unique round roof trusses obviated the need for center column supports.
Builders Isaac McNamee and his son Emery also began building round barns in several counties of the Hoosier state. In 1902, the McNamees were engaged by Indiana legislator Frank Littleton to build a barn to best the 100’ diameter structure built by Steele earlier for Wymond Beckett. The McNamees built the largest round barn ever built in Indiana, the Frank Littleton Round Barn, collaborating with Horace Duncan (Duncan, builder of the famous J.H. Manchester Round Barn in Ohio) and Benton Steele.
The Littleton barn was 102 feet in diameter and was the design was used to submit a U.S.patent – “Improvements to the Self-Supported Conical Roof“, granted in 1905 to Littleton, McNamee, and Duncan, Benton Steele’s name was notably absent from the patent application.
Steele, the McNamees, Duncan along with carpenter Samuel Frank Detraz thus began a loose partnership and built round barns in Indiana and surrounding states, even sending crews as far away as South Dakota. A breakout of severe storms east of Indianapolis in June of 1902 destroyed many farm buildings; however, Steele and McNamee’s round bars survived intact – adding to the reputation of the barns being ‘cyclone-proof’.
Steele, the savvy marketer, saw that an endorsement by experts of the circular barn design would be good for business; after getting no interest from the Ag departments of the state universities in Indiana, Steele hopped over to Illinois and built a round barn for Professor C.B. Dorcy of the University of Illinois. Dorcy then helped Steele get a deal to build three barns on the Champaign–Urbana campus. Soon after, W.J. Fraser, Chief in Dairy Husbandry published the 1910 bulletin “Economy of the Round Dairy Barn,” [See our Retrospective] .After this publication, the round barn, a revolutionary concept for most farmers at the time, went mainstream.
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, a young black man named Algie Shivers studies carpentry at George R. Smith College in Sedalia, Missouri, and after tour in France during WWI, this son of a Tennessee slave (who used the Underground Railroad to find his way to Wisconsin) settled down in his adopted home of Vernon County. Shivers ran his family farm and began building barns for his neighbors. Vernon County in those days was a rare example of racial harmony, as African-Americans and European settlers lived and worked together (it was said Shivers could speak Czech, as many of the European immigrants that settled this region were Bohemians from Czechoslovakia).
Soon, it was known throughout the area that Shivers-supervised barn raisings resulted in unique round barns in Wisconsin – reportedly, Shivers 3-man crew could erect a barn in less than 100 days. Algie reportedly said the round barns were better because of ‘no corners to clean’. Little is known about the diminutive Shivers’ plans or methods because unlike his Indiana counterparts, he published no plans and did no advertising. Shivers crews erected between 15-20 round barns, in the Wisconsin counties of Vernon and Monroe. This area of western Wisconsin has the highest concentration of round barns in the nation, and half of the round barns that still stand today were built by Algie Shivers and his crews. Meanwhile, trouble was brewing for the Indiana round barn crews.
The Indiana group of Steele, McNamee, and Duncan were independently building barns all over the midwest, mostly because of the promotional efforts of Benton Steele. Then in 1909, the elder McNamee died and Duncan, the other roof patent holder began asserting his patent rights, even seeking payment from barn owners of Benton Steele’s Hoosier round barns – claiming patent infringement. This had a chilling effect on farmers contemplating building new barns- as they feared a round design would put them a legal risk. Steele left Indiana and moved to Kansas, where he had relatives; he would construct over 20 round barns in that state, far from the legal mess left in Indiana.
Benton Steele’s well-conceived round barn plans were sold as commercial architectural firms like the Gordon-Van Tine Company, a seller of barn plans. He also designed several public buildings in Kansas.
C. V. Kindig and Sons, prominent Indiana builders also built many round barns, mostly in the northwest part of the state. The Kindigs were responsible for most of the barns in Fulton County, known as the Round Barn Capital of the World.
The 1920’s saw the beginning of the decline of the round barn. The advances of electricity and mechanization outweighed the inherent layout efficiencies of a round design, one of the main reasons for round barns. Modern milking and other barn machinery, along with the advent of the square hay bale, just worked better in a traditional rectangular structure.
Round barns over 60 feet across had problems with ventilation of the silage and were too dark inside. Carpenters with the skill to frame the complex structures were hard to find, and the central silo feature of these barns fell out of favor after many farmers complained they were difficult to fill with silage because of their central location in the structure.
The legal problems stemming from patient lawsuits in Indiana helped seal the fate of the round barn. At his death in 1946, Benton Steele reportedly said:
“The circular form of building is and always has been and always will be, the ultimate in architectural form as well as the strongest shapes ever conceived by man. The Creator made and fashioned every known or tangible thing after the circular form and to travel and function in circular or elliptical orbits….by reason of circular motion and because of the circular shape of all terrestrial and existing things”
By the 1930’s, the era of the round barn was over.
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