The Barn – from the Top Down

Taking a closer look at Emil and Gina’s barn built in 1901, we notice a cupola tops it off. This one (below) appears to be a wooden rectangular structure, reminding me that Jerry Apps wrote in his Barns of Wisconsin that “[s]ome of them look like doghouses.” Cupolas might be any shape, from very simple to complex or even ornate.

This one definitely appears to be simple, but I keep wondering if its shape might have to do with Clara’s comment in Homestead (30): “On top of the barn, in the center, was a windmill to pump water….” I can’t see a windmill in this photo, but I still wonder what I’m missing: this cupola seems large, even the shape of a dormer. The basic function of the cupola, of course, was to provide ventilation for the barn. Warm air rises, and so the hot humid air generated by the cattle at ground level would escape up to chutes into the haymow and out the cupola. Metal cupolas or ventilators would come later.

How about the roof itself? Wood shingles, usually cedar, were the common roofing material at the time Emil’s barn was built. They likely were commercially produced. When these wood shingles were rained on, they’d swell and seal out the rain. When the sun shone and they dried out, you could look up inside the haymow and literally see “a thousand points of light” (without making a political statement!). I’d guess wood shingles were at least Emil’s first roof, because composition shingles didn’t really arrive until the 1920s.

The barn was a familiar red with white trim. Red was not the only color for barns, of course, but surely the most common. Europeans brough the red barn tradition with them. There they had preserved their buildings with linseed oil mixed with inexpensive coloring such animal blood from butchering (I’m not making this up) or rust to get a duller red.  Jerry Apps wrote (p. 97) that American farmers, too, would mix their own paint, often using skim milk, lime, ferrous oxide (rust) and linseed oil. In the late 1800s, manufactured paint became available, with red paint generally less expensive.

One last comment. About the time Elias and Emil built their barn, poured concrete began being popular for foundations, barn floors, feed mangers, etc. Did they use it in 1901? My guess is that they may have for the foundation, but inside the barn? No, that floor was dirt until 1915. Concrete must have been a wonderful improvement.

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One Response to The Barn – from the Top Down

  1. weathervane says:

    Great post. Very cool old school photo

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