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Why a “Barn Style” Museum? 


By Ober Anderson, Member, Historical Society and The Iowa Barn Foundation


  Some Ankeny Historical Society members may ask, “Why do we have a “barn style” museum building?   I hope this article answers the question.


For over 300 years, from 1650-1950, the American all-purpose barn, usually the most prominent building on a farm, was the center of hard work focused on making a livelihood from raising crops and animals.  So important was the barn that it was often built before the house. Sometimes the family lived in the barn until the house was built.


Early Iowa barns often reflected the nationality of early settlers.  Some, like the Norwegian barns in northeast Iowa, were adapted from barns left behind in Europe. Bank barns were built into the side of a hill or bank, so upper and lower floors could be accessed from the ground level, they were adapted from European barns.  Barns in Marion and Sioux Counties, many hip-roofed, reflect the Dutch heritage of the area.


While ethnic barns were built in eastern Iowa with its rising dairy industry in the 1880s, prairie or western barns on open grassland farms, such as cattle feeder barns, met a farmer's need there to feed and shelter cattle that they fattened for shipping by rail to slaughterhouses.   Prairie barns began dotting the western half of Iowa after the Civil War, increased greatly in numbers during the 1880s, and continued to be built through World War II. These large barns often housed livestock on the lower level and had storage for hay on the second level.   Others had feed bunks surrounding the barn's center that was filled with hay piled from the floor to the roof.  Both varieties had a large door at the roof peak for loading hay into the loft with a hay fork that raised hay from the farm wagon up to a hay carrier fixed to the peak which could pull the hay inside. These large barns had livestock housed on the lower level and storage for hay on the second level. 


The oldest barns in Iowa are in the eastern part of the state-some pre-Civil War.  Eastern Iowa had plentiful wood for building barns of heavy timber framing--then the common barn construction method for connecting timbers with wooden pegs.  Using local building materials, stone for foundations, and wood from trees on the property, early settlers built the size barn they could with available local help and the time they could give to it.  Later, as farm wealth accumulated, some farmers hired skilled barn builders who used wood that had been floated by river from Wisconsin and Minnesota to Mississippi River mills for sawing and shipment by rail.   


Until there were rail connections for bringing in sawed lumber, community saw mills prevailed. They were often operated by a local farmer who took a portable horse-powered saw taken to a building site.  As time went on, farmers created their own designs, incorporating ideas taken from farm magazines.  Additional designs also came from the Iowa State University's Agricultural Engineering Department and the United States Department of Agriculture.


Early settlers usually selected their home site near timber and water.  Timber was needed for firewood as well as construction of homes and buildings.  In central and western Iowa, timber was not always found in large supply.  Often timber was purchased from a neighbor.  Sometimes early families purchased small timber lots of five to 20 acres.  The Ballard County Club, Huxley, sits on one of these sites. 


When a barn was in the finishing stage of construction, families gathered together for a “barn raising” when lots of energy was needed to lift the rafters into place.  After the barn was completed, a barn dance was held on the floor of the hay loft.  Family members and neighbors from miles around joined in fun, food, and fellowship. Barns also played an important role in the social life of a farm family. It was a place for play and for basketball.


Barns continued to be constructed until shortly after World War II. Then, following the rapid mechanization during the war and better all-weather roads, which enabled farmers to drive their modern machinery to numerous farm parcels they owned or rented, the overall size of these fragmented farms nearly doubled between 1900 and 1950 and has persisted.   Thus, there are fewer farms and barns. Fewer families live on the land. No longer do farmers raise a variety of livestock where a relatively small number or horses, beef cows, dairy cows, sheep, and hogs might occupy a single barn.     


As farm families became employed off the farm, larger specialized buildings were erected for each type of livestock. The first of these were the large, caged layer buildings holding several thousand laying hens in one house.  Larger dairy and beef cattle barns followed.  Once swine diseases were under control, large hog confinement buildings followed.  This efficiency of scale allowed for less labor and ultimately less expensive food for the consumer.


The historic Iowa barn is a rapidly diminishing resource.  At one time there were over 200,000 barns in Iowa.  It is estimated the some 50,000 remain.  Fortunately, for barn enthusiasts and historians, many farmers are willing to ignore profitability in the interest of tradition and heritage to maintain their barns.  The Iowa Barn Foundation is dedicated to making this possible through their grant programs, tours, and resources for barn restoration. 


It is important that Iowans save historic barns.  The historic barn offers us a sense of place as a “Cathedral on the Prairie.”   Some have said that, next to the American flag, barns are one of the most recognized symbols of our national history, America's work ethic, the American dream. 

Built by untrained "artists", they are folk art just as quilts are.  Each had a role in Iowa's history-in America's history.  


So, you see barns are a very important part of our local history.  The image and role of the All-Purpose Farm Barn should be preserved for future generations. 


A Typical Old Iowa Barn

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