The Barn Came First

The title of this post is, as I recall, a book title that serves as a reminder that for immigrant families, a good barn often was constructed before a fine family home. Why? Because the barn was where farm folks made a living. Emil and Gina were farming with his parents, Elias and Kari, when the barn was built in 1901. Two years later, this young couple bought the farm, but not until 1912 did they build the red brick house for their growing family.

In Homestead (30) Clara describes the barn (above): “The barn faced east, with a hay loft, a dirt floor and double doors, one on the north side and the other on the south side. The stanchions were made of upright wood bars that fitted behind the cow’s head; they opened and closed with wooden clamps. The stalls for the cows were partially boarded on each side. The calves were kept on the west [end] and the horses on the east end in large stalls. On top of the barn, in the center, was a windmill to pump water into a tank and then into the wooden troughs in front of the stanchions…for the cows. (Pump and water tank were inside the barn on the south side.) The barn was painted red with white trim.”

In his beautiful book, Barns of Wisconsin, Jerry Apps describes the gable roof on Emil’s barn as typical of Norwegian construction. So also the extension of the gable at end one (the east, in this case) to support the hayfork track. This extension was required when the barn could not be built into a bank to drive horses and hay wagons onto the second floor of the barn. Notice this extension on Emil’s barn below (a photo we’ve seen earlier).

The second floor haymow would have chutes, three or four foot square holes in the floor with boards extending upward on three sides. Hay would be forked into these chutes for the cattle on the ground floor, where again it would be carried to the animals. These same chutes served as ventilators for the cattle section of the barn, resulting in thick frost overhead in the haymow during the winter.

Until the early 1900’s, barns were often a post-and-timber construction, according to Apps, but then lumber became scare and plank (sawed) framing was used. I don’t know which construction Emil’s barn used (maybe Sid knows). When farmers went to plank construction, the benefit was elimination of the timbers that interrupted the haymow space.

The same haymow had a wood floor, of course, which usually meant as the wood dried out, cracks and gaps between the floor boards were commonplace. For the farmer, that mean the aggravation of sometimes getting chunk of hay chaff and dust down your shirt at the neck – or in your milk bucket!

You may have noticed in Clara’s description that the barn had a dirt floor in 1901 – common at the time. Emil’s 1915 re-modeling brought a cement floor and a world of improvement (Homestead, 35).

“Europe may have its cathedrals, but Wisconsin’s story is warmly told through its glorious barns”(Richard Cates, Jr. in Barns of Wisconsin, ix).  I like that. More about Emil and Gina’s barn in another post.

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