Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Reading a Barn

I didn't know what to expect when I heard about a Parks program entitled "How to Read a Barn" being held at an Amish-Mennonite farm. But of course, I had to go. Years ago I wrote a magazine article about the hex barns in Pennsylvania, so thought that maybe this would touch on that. It didn't, but it was interesting just the same. "Reading a barn" translated into exploring the construction of the barn to determine who had built it, for what purpose, and when.

I know very little about barns, architecture, or construction, so nearly everything in the presentation was new to me. It was nice to tour the barn with a knowledgeable guide who explained why the barn was built the way it was.

For instance, this was a Pennsylvania bank barn. What that means is that it was built into a sloped piece of ground so that the grade to enter it, whether with horse & wagon, tractor, or threshing machine, was fairly level. Farmers entered through the west side onto the threshing floor and threshed the wheat. Then, because the barn openings were on the west and east sides of the barn, the wind (which comes from the West in the Ohio Valley), then carried the chaff through the opening on the east side. Very practical.

We examined the cornerstones which were "chinked" with smaller stones that stabilized the stone structure and held it in place without mortar. We discussed whether or not this particular barn had had a cantilevered overhang like most other Pennsylvania bank barns. The engineers and barn historians in the group couldn't come to an agreement, but studied the beams, rafters and construction to make educated guesses.

I was more entertained by the farm-life insight I acquired. As we stood in the cool bottom level of the barn looking at the design of the rafters, our guide observed that the ceiling rafters were painted. He asked if anyone knew what that probably meant. A few people did. It indicated that section of the barn was used for dairy, because it was custom to paint the ceilings to keep cobwebs and dirt from falling into the milk.

We also got a demonstration of how some of the antique farm tools were used. Again, most of it was over my head, but I did get to see an adz, which is one of my favorite Scrabble words to use.

Do I now know how to read a barn? No, though I do have a better sense of how well-constructed and utilitarian they are. Building barns is best left to those who understand all the work that needs to take place within its walls. Because every single inch of that space had a purpose. That's my summary from the reading.


  1. So so so so cool! I feel like this is a story waiting to happen. (A fictional story, I mean. Obviously you just told A story. :P)

  2. This was very interesting! It sounds like something to investigate further, don't you think?