The Heritage of Barns

Does any symbol represent the Midwest better than barns? From gable to gambrel roof, and monitor to salt box shape, Jon McGinty treks through southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois to find these disappearing landmarks.

Gambrel-roofed barn in Rock County, Wis. (Jon McGinty photo)

At their most basic, barns are structures to provide shelter and storage for farm activities. They’re used to house livestock, store grain and hay, milk cows, collect manure and protect farmers from the elements when working on things. Most older barns were constructed from local materials, such as logs, sawed lumber or stone from fields or quarries. How they were designed and built, however, varies from place to place and era to era, which gives each barn a potential historic importance.
“Barns found throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin show us various ethnic influences and agricultural styles,” says Carol Rowe, past president of the Boone County Historical Society. She’s a fifth-generation resident of Boone County and lives in Belvidere. “From the early 1830s into the 1900s, European immigrants and New England Yankees settled in this part of the Midwest, and began farming. They brought with them the skills and character of their cultural
Although she never lived on a farm, Rowe has been fascinated by barns for years. She presents lectures on local barns, using her own photographs to illustrate her talks. She also borrows photographs from her friend Mildred Banks, a Belvidere photographer whose extensive collection of barn photos has been displayed in area museums and published in books and magazines.
According to Rowe’s research, most older barns in our area were constructed during the era of the family farm, when farms were comparatively small and highly diversified. The family provided all necessary labor and management, each member having been assigned chores and decision-making responsibilities. The farm barn, together with related buildings for housing animals and storing feed, was the primary investment of the farmer, sometimes to the neglect of the house.
Following World War II, U.S. agriculture became more specialized and industrialized, and influence of the family farm declined. Draft animals were replaced by machinery, and production of food animals became more factory-like. Gradually, many traditional barns and other buildings were abandoned or allowed to deteriorate, as more modern structures replaced them.
In recent years, however, a renewed interest in barns as symbols of rural life, or historic examples of our past, has inspired individuals and organizations to save and restore some of these iconic gems. Others examples have endured for generations and maintain a vital, though altered, role on family farms.

Barn Roofs

One of the distinguishing features of American barns is the roof line, usually incorporating one or more of three types: the gable, the gambrel and the arch.
The gable roof has two planes which meet at the top, forming an A-frame or triangle shape at each end. One of the easiest and most affordable to build, it’s often seen in our area. Its primary disadvantage is limited space in the upper room, or loft.
The gambrel roof has four planes, the two top ones at a slight pitch, the two lower ones set much steeper. The name comes from its resemblance to the rear leg of a horse. Its main advantages are more storage space under the eaves and no need for main supports near the middle of the loft. A person can walk upright under practically any part of the roof. It costs more to build, however.
The arched roof, also called rainbow, round, or gothic roof, came about in the 1940s, when trusses and laminated beams replaced pegged beams in traditional construction. This change allowed builders to construct large arch-shaped roof lines with few if any supporting posts to interrupt the upper storage area. This maximized space in the hayloft. Large doors under the peak are used to bring hay into the loft, using either a hay fork and pulleys or a conveyor belt.
Variations on these basic roof types include the monitor barn, in which the center portion of the roof line is raised on short walls, giving it a unique shape. This allows the farmer to add extra height in the center of the barn, while keeping the overall pitch low. Some monitor barns started out as gable barns, then sheds were added along both sides of the center section. Windows on each side of the raised center section can provide ventilation without adding dormers or cupolas.
A salt box barn is created when sheds or lean-tos are added to only one side of a gable barn, extending its roof line down to within a few feet of the ground. The lower side usually faces the north or the direction of the prevailing wind, to provide protection from foul weather.

Barn Styles

Several historic barn styles also can be found in our area, including the bank barn, round barn, oval barn, crib barn and prairie barn.
The bank barn, sometimes called the basement barn, was usually situated against the side of a hill, its opposite side an exposed basement. The upper floor was a hayloft, and wagons or other machinery could enter directly into the central bay from the higher ground level or climb up a ramp if a hillside was unavailable.
The lower floor was for livestock, and sometimes chutes or trapdoors allowed hay to be dropped down to the animals. The Pennsylvania style of bank barn included a fore bay on the downhill side, created by extending the upper floor joists to provide some overhead shelter for animals outside.
The round barn originated with some religious sects in New England, such as the Shakers and Quakers: There are no corners in a round barn for the devil to hide in! Such barns were extensively promoted in this area in the 1920s by agricultural colleges, such as the University of Illinois, for several reasons: No matter the size, a round shape has more internal volume than any other; construction requires fewer materials; and it has greater structural stability in severe weather, since it’s more aerodynamic than boxes or cubes. Some round barns also contain a silo in the center, which adds structural strength and convenience in feeding livestock below. The shape never became very popular, partly because it’s more difficult to build.
Oval barns were introduced in this area by Frank Barnes (no kidding!) in the early 1900s. An oval barn consists of a rectangular barn with one half of a round barn at each end. The touted advantages include more capacity than a round barn, more structural strength and less expense.
A crib barn contains slotted cribs on either side of a central aisle, the slots allowing air circulation to dry corn. The aisle lets a wagon pass through the center for loading or unloading crops.
The prairie barn, sometimes called the western barn, has great storage space for the hay and feed required for large herds of livestock. The long, sweeping roof resembles the salt box, as it comes close to the ground on the windward side of the building.

The Future?

The continued existence of historic barns is threatened by urban development of farmland, loss of family farms to industrialized farming, and declining rural populations. As one wag puts it, “Barn raisings have given way to barn razings!”
Among groups trying to reverse this trend and save traditional barns for future generations: the Wisconsin Barn Preservation Program (; National Barn Alliance (; and the Illinois Barn Alliance (

Take a Barn Tour

There are many historic and fascinating barns still standing in our area. Many local organizations sponsor barn tours or proivde maps for self-guided tours.
In Stephenson County, Ill., a guided barn tour is slated for Oct. 14. For more info, contact Martha Ebbesmeyer at (815) 235-2165. In Green County, Wis., visitors can take a self-guided tour of the countryside to view more than 117 barn quilts. The installation of a barn quilt square highlights the structure as symbol of rural America while celebrating the art of the quilt. Visit for more information.
Until you can get out on your own, please enjoy this photographic tour, courtesy of Jon McGinty.

Jon McGinty photo

This gable-roofed bank barn on Anderson Road is owned by Frank and Barbara Flores. It was built in the late 1800s as a dairy barn, but is used now for storage and horses. The louvers on the sides provide ventilation. The lower doorways are partially sheltered by a pent roof.

Jon McGinty photo

This huge bank barn on Willow Road was built in 1876, and is also an official Illinois Sesquicentennial barn. Stewart Schlafer now owns the farm, and has lived here since 1947, inheriting it from his grandfather, who bought it in 1915 and constructed the first silo that same year. Originally a horse barn, the structure was converted to dairy operations in 1940.

Jon McGinty photo

This oval bank barn, designed by Frank Barnes, is located on North Crane Road. Built in 1913 as a dairy barn, it still contains the wooden stanchions, an oat bin on the upper level, and chutes to drop hay from the mow to the cattle below. During dairy operations, a manure bucket traveled on a metal rail around the perimeter. Rob and Val Wiederkehr bought the barn in 2006 and use it for storage.

Jon McGinty photo

This Quonset-style barn on Wisconsin 11/18 near Brodhead is made from corrugated steel, probably left over from World War II. The lower sides of the arch roof have been painted to resemble siding.