Arguments may still continue in years to come concerning why round or multi-sided barns were built rather than the conventional square or rectangular ones.
A selection of three round barns and three multi-sided ones. The one with the white expanse of roof in the latter category has an old-fashioned silo rising from the center of the barn. The fodder thus was more easily shoveled into the feed bunks. The Whiteside County Fairgrounds has a showpiece barn in Morrison.
Barns of all styles are steadily dwindling in numbers so enjoy their majesty while you can. Those generic half-domed metal sheds arouse no sentimentality as the wooden barn, personal to its builder/owner create an emotional link to people and events gone before.
Round barns are scattered all over Northwest Illinois, all over the state, for that matter. In fact, Illinois is thought to have more round barns percentage-wise than most states.
It was Stephenson County that was thought to be the “round barn capitol” of Illinois. At one time it had nearly two dozen round or multi-sided ones but probably half have been lost to age and tear down, or fire.
Two men from Springfield back in the 1970’s began photographing them statewide and sending out surveys to chronicle their history. The two, Dr. Keith Sculle and Wayne Price, took it upon themselves to study and preserve history of barns and were very pleased to find so many at the top of the state.
Peak of construction of round barns was from the turn-of-the century, 1900, into the 1920’s. The last in Stephenson County was built in 1930.
Early in the 1900’s the University of Illinois in one of their programs to aid agriculture, sent out pamphlets encouraging the building of round or multi-sided farm buildings. This may have led to the several that sprouted up throughout.
The greatest asset, it was discovered, was that they used one-third less lumber per square footage. That, of course, meant fewer dollars spent, an advantage to the builder.
More space could be enclosed for less money than a conventional barn and shorter pieces of lumber which didn’t cost as much as the long boards used in the standard barn. Something not taken into consideration in most places as the fact that in Stephenson County there were barn builders of unusual expertise, one of whom was Jeremiah Schaffer. He, it was said “spoke” barns as did the Haas brothers led by Omer Haas who had little schooling but had a mathematical ability bordering on genius. He could scribble out the numbers necessary for the structure to take form all with the help of his brothers: Emanuel, Ira Edward, William Henry and Luther. Wouldn’t you have liked to know them all?!
It is believed that the first round barn was built in the 1820’s by Shakers, a religious sect, who were known for their practicality, experimentation and efficiency. They’d have figured out the positiveness of the round or multi-sided barn and built it before others got done scratching their heads. The round barn, by the way, is unique to America.
More floor space is found in a round barn and there ware no corners where dirt or detritus can accumulate so easily. The multi-sided barn with six to twenty walls, takes shorter pieces of wood and “non-professionals” can more “see” the next step without a lot of direction! More light can be directed inside, too.
Another plus of the round barn was said to have been that there was nothing for the wind to “grab onto.” It just slid around the sides! One big negative, however, was that there was no center beam to support the wide expanse of roof. Often they were buffeted by the frequent prairie winds, day in, day out, which took its tool. The roof could collapse more readily than the rectangular barn roof which was braced by a central beam and supporting timbers from the sides.
Following WWI the numbers of round barns went into decline and never again reached the dozens built before or during that conflict. Perhaps, barn builders just wanted a return to the traditional. The differing cultures, the ethnicity of the people who settled here in the Midwest added their own touches and reasons for building the barns they did. The “Pennsylvania Dutch” were thought to have made it known why they would build a round barn. And perhaps they were onto something. The Devil couldn’t lurk in the corners of a round barn. There weren’t any.