Wessels Living History Farm - York Nebraska Farming in the 1940s
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Barns – Functions & Forms

  The Wessels Living History Farm barn  
Barns are a distinctive part of the rural landscape and a source of romance for some urban dwellers driving out into the country. But barns exist to solve very real problems for farmers. As the technology of farming changed – particularly during the 1940s – so did the shape and form of barns.

Barns are as much a part of the technology of the farm as a tractor. Usually, barns and other farm buildings are designed to accomplish one or more functions:

  • Animal shelter and production like milking.
  • Crop storage and feeding.
  • Vehicle and implement shelter and repair.
  • Any combination of these functions.

So, some farmers would build a barn to milk their cows with hay storage on the second floor to feed them. Other barns would house and feed horses. Others would combine all three functions with horses on one side, cows on the others.

Carla Due InterviewThe large barns were sources of pride. Some said that German farmers would build the barn first and build it better than their houses.

The barns also served social functions. Carla Due remembers barn dances. "If they had a real nice barn," she says, "they would have a barn dance up in the haymow before they started putting up hay. And those were wonderful because the whole neighborhood got together, just brought whatever you had and had lunch together."

Many farmers would divide the functions they needed into several smaller outbuildings. As farming got more mechanized, separate machine sheds sprouted up. In the Midwest, chicken coops and small hog barns were common, since most farmers had diversified grain and livestock operations.

There are also regional differences in barns and outbuildings. In the south, winters are milder, and so there was generally little need for large barns to house animals. They were simply allowed to stay outside over the winter months. Barns in the south were smaller and more specialized. For instance, tobacco farmers built special structures to cure their tobacco leaves.

In the 1940s, farming underwent a technological revolution. Almost all farmers retired their horses, and so they no longer needed to house them in horse barns. The structures were adapted to other uses. Stalls were ripped out. Doors were widened so that tractors and larger implements could be driven in, repaired and protected from the winter snow.

As more and more farmers specialized, growing only one crop or producing only one kind of livestock, barns were adapted to those functions. Grain farmers began putting in more and more grain bins.

When the mechanical corn combine was introduced, corncribs that had protected corn on the cob were replaced by corn drying bins housing tons of corn kernels until market conditions provided the best price for the farmer.

Ted Kooser poemWhen automatic hay balers were introduced, all of the technology used to hoist loose hay into the second floor haymow via ropes and pulleys was obsolete. Motorized conveyor belts would haul bales into the mow. Later, large round bales protected themselves – especially when they were automatically wrapped in plastic – and they were left in the field. The bales became their own barns.

After the 1940s, the rural outbuildings that were left became utilitarian metal buildings, replacing the graceful wooden barns. And for many urban dwellers, some of the romance left the country. Yet, former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (right) still finds poetry in old barns. In his poem "Riding the Bus in Midwinter" Ted looks out and imagines what would happen if a barn "could loosen itself from its old foundations and start out rocking and creaking over the fields…"

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.


The Livestock Industry Grows

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