A Historic Look at Barns – Then and Now

Posted on May 2, 2014

From the days of Thomas Jefferson the barn has been a staple image in the American consciousness.  Barns have been the main structure of farms for centuries. These structures represent tradition, security, and bring a feeling of closeness to the land and community that built them. The world of agriculture has changed and molded into a multimillion dollar business, but the barn still serves the same purpose.


old barnBarns were added onto the land when farmers were in need of housing for livestock or the storage of grain and crops. Materials for these structures were usually made out of timbers from the trees on the farm. Using mortise and tenon joints, woodworkers would join these pieces of timber by connecting them at a 90 degree angle. This was a simple constructing process, but also quite durable and strong.

Building with timbers was replaced by “truss framed” or “plank framed” barns after the mid to late 19th century. Steam powered sawmills now allowed farmers to affordably buy dimensional lumber. The joints for this type of lumber were connected with bolts or machine cut nails.

When people think about these old historic barns they often think of them covered with red paint. The theory behind this color choice is that it was the cheapest and most readily available, due to the ferric oxide that was used to create it. The downfall of this type of barn was the combination of lumber, flammable paint and being filled with hay caused fires that were almost always considered total losses to the farm.


steel barnTraditional wooden barns are still constructed all over the world; however buildings made from steel have quickly become the material of choice. There are several reasons why this type of building has become increasingly popular over the years.

  • They provide the options to easily add additional space to your barn while your farm continues to grow.
  • They are built to withstand the forces of nature; snow, rain, wind, fire and even earthquakes.
  • They lack the problems of wood eating pests such as termites.
  • They are the most cost effective because the materials cost less and they do not require the necessary maintenance that comes along with a traditional wooden structure.

Whether you love the nostalgia of the traditional American barn or the beauty and strength of a steel agricultural building, this great country has the history for both. From the sea side farms in the East Hamptons to the organic ones in California, these buildings will always be a part of our great American history.