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Timber Frame Barns of Midwest America

Nov 28, 2007 Timber Frame Barns of Midwest America.pdf

It has been a great pleasure and privilege to be involved in a career that enables me to authentically restore old and historic structures in the American Midwest. Our work has involved projects as diverse as a 19th-century hydroelectric plant on the Illinois River, once owned by Thomas Edison, the restoration of tornado and lightning damaged church steeples, all manner of log buildings, historic Chicago store fronts, courthouses, State Capitol buildings and 18th century forts, as well as timber truss work of all types. But I have found a particular fondness for our 19th-century barns of the Midwest. It has been the most rewarding of all our work to restore, replicate, move and otherwise salvage barns, and thereby some aspect of our agricultural heritage.

The literature on barns of the Midwest is extensive, and rightly so. In Illinois (IL) ~ a state of 58,000 square miles  (150000km2) that takes nine hours to drive from top to bottom ~ there were an estimated 300,000 plus barns, mostly timber frames or log buildings, at the turn of the 20th Century. Looking into the 21st Century, we are now observing  staggering losses. We might have roughly a tenth of those structures left. The French built some of first European structures in Peoria, IL, in 1682. The state was part of the French Empire from 1673 until 1763. Until the mid-1700s, these settlements were scarce. The British then occupied parts of Illinois until the late 1778, when George Rogers  Clark claimed the territory for Virginia. Settlement began in earnest in the early 1820s and 1830’s by New Englanders moving west, European immigrants came via the waterways and Appalachian settlers moving north.  Most Southerners remained in the southern portion of Illinois, known as Little Egypt for the multitude of Native  American mounds that dot this region. The capitol of this region was centered on Cahokia, IL, circa 1000AD, (near St. Louis) the largest city north of Mesoamerica, until around 1800, when Philadelphia surpassed it in population.

From the 1820s, until the early 20th Century, this new settlement by Americans and Europeans continued in rural and outlying areas. Unfortunately, most of the buildings in Illinois built before 1812 were destroyed in the Great Quake of that year, which is said to have forced the mighty Mississippi River to flow backward for three days. It is written in Illinois in 1837; A Sketch Descriptive of the Situation, by Augustus Mitchell, that the only structures to survive the massive earthquake were the numerous log built structures. However, I know from having visited two examples, that a series of stone forts, built by the British before 1800, and stretching south from St. Louis, still exist today.

Materials in this vast untouched resource were plentiful, and it was with exuberance and determination that the new arrivals clear-cut the 19 million acres (7.7m Hectares) of forest that once occupied Illinois. In general, the state was a land dominated by a massive oak-hickory forest in the hilly areas and riparian zones and wherever else the endless  tall grass prairie didn’t cover the glaciated plains. In the northern reaches, some white pine grew where they were  safe from sweeping prairie fires and in the south; hard pines, cypress and other species grew.

Even today, over 20 native species of oak, five species of hickory and a dozen other valuable hardwood species still  grow in the oak-hickory forest. With this in mind, it is clear which materials would have been chosen for the  construction of structures during settlement time periods. As a rule most structures built before 1860 in Illinois are of local hardwoods, including (in frequency order) white oak (including: bur, chinquapin, white, post, and others), black and red oak (northern red, southern red), walnut, sugar maple, chestnut, American elm, white, green, brown and  black ash, silver maple, basswood, cherry, cottonwood and red elm. By the 1860s, much of the hardwood forest in Illinois had been depleted by settlers. They and the already lumber-hungry cities of the eastern US now needed to look elsewhere for materials.

From 1850 until 1890, around 3 billion bd ft. (250million ft3, or just over 7million m3) of white pine were logged annually from Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa ~ an area comprising around 250,000 square miles (650000km2). The central and northern portions of Illinois were settled first, primarily where the majority of hardwoods grew prior to settlement. Once those areas were deforested, these settlements needed to look elsewhere for raw materials for building. The land could not support the need for the additional housing, exported
products, and fuel. Since most of the hardwood forests in Illinois were depleted by use of the axe, and hewing, there was an incredible amount of waste by the first settlers. From the late 1600s to the mid-1800s, almost all framing timber in Illinois (and especially large timber) was converted with simple hand tools, chiefly the broad axe. Sawmills appeared as early as the 1830s, but most buildings continued to be built of hewn stock. In fact, manual conversion of local materials continued until at least 1930, on the evidence of a hand-hewn white-oak fachwerk-style building I  surveyed in Waterloo, IL. In general, pit saws were few and far between. Structures built completely of hewn local materials (including hand-converted roof shingles, siding, doors and the like), are common until around 1840.

As we travel farther west this date slips; a hand-hewn building (manually converted shingles, boards, wooden  hardware and the like) we renovated in Oklahoma on the Pottawattamie Indian reservation has a known build date in the late 1870s.

Once the local stock was depleted, Illinois settlers moved farther afield in search of materials and, as white pine became the dominant construction material; more and more framing timber was sawn. A barn we restored in Albertson, near Aledo, IL, built somewhere between 1860 and 1870, is framed with a third hewn pine, the balance being sawn, and it is clear that the white pine is from Wisconsin, as are all of the timbers filled with raft holes. Typically, the first pine utilized in western Illinois came from Wisconsin, to the north. Loggers began cutting timber as early as the 1830’s along the Wisconsin River drainage, about 150 miles (240km) north of Aledo, IL. Once the trees were felled in the woods they were either hewn square, or skidded whole down to the landing. Once floated down river they would be assembled into larger rafts that would move on to a sawmill site, some place further along the Wisconsin or Mississippi river. This was a time consuming and dangerous proposition, so most early settlers would only purchase white pine if the local materials were unavailable. Similarly, early logging camps developed in Michigan, to the east. However, most of this material went to the growing city of Chicago, 180 miles (288km) to the west of the barn site in Aledo. This material was generally not rafted in as large a quantity, or for as long a distance. Raft holes, about 1¼” (30mm) to 1½” (40mm) and 6-8” (150-200mm) deep were drilled a few inches apart along the length of a log and hardwood saplings or branch pins were driven into them to fasten together the massive raft camps that floated down the Mississippi. The longest recorded raft was over 4000ft (1200m). During the late 19th Century, it was not uncommon for landowners to fell trees on their property, hew them on the spot, then drag the lighter, more easily handled (and now value-added) timber to the closest waterway, where it might be shipped or floated 500 miles (800km) or more, for use in a Midwestern building. The immense network of rivers and lakes in Illinois and adjoining states was a huge contributor to rapid deforestation of the landscape. Illinois itself has 30,000 miles (48000km) of rivers as well as 500 miles of riverfront on the Mississippi.

The Mississippi drains 189,000 square miles (490000km2 ) of land in the Upper Midwest. A recent survey project, which has resulted in an upcoming restoration job, is the 1842 Garfield Barn. Built in La Fox, IL of local white oak, bur oak, and some ash in 1842, this "English" threshing style barn was one of the first barn types built by a settler from New England or Europe when homesteading in Illinois. By the 1840s, many northern Illinois barns were built for wheat production to serve new markets, created by the soon to be opened up massive canal projects connecting the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River and ultimately, of course, the Gulf of Mexico and the western frontier. The 1842 Garfield barn was one such structure. Located near the medium-sized Fox River, grain from that region was soon able to be shipped to the Illinois and Michigan Canal (completed 1848) that joined Lake Michigan with the Illinois river, thus connecting St. Louis and Chicago and other points west and south.

 The "English" threshing barn in America is also known simply as a three-bay barn. According to Henry Glassie, in Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States (1969), 'south eastern England is the most direct antecedent source region for this barn'. In general, however, a three-bay barn in the Midwest was initially built exclusively for the purposes of storing and threshing wheat. Three bay barns appeared on the Illinois landscape
built by immigrants from New England and Europe simultaneously. Every immigrant group brought itsown building methods at the time of settlement, and it’s not until the early 20th Century that we see a complete homogenization of rural building methods. However, I have surveyed threshing barns that are all configured similarly, yet are unrelated culturally to New England. Some may predate, but more often coincide with the immigration waves form New England. Not only were some barns built to serve the larger wheat boom, as speculators came specifically to partake in that business, but many early barns were also built for threshing grain and for serving local markets. A threebay threshing barn, of the type which Garfield barn represents, is typically rectangular in plan, with the diagonal length of the floorplan twice the gable wall length. Walls often measure approximately, or exactly, 1 rod (16’ 6” / 5.03m) in height, with gable roofs at 1/3 pitch (8 :12), with or without kingpost or queenpost trusses.

One storage bay for un-threshed wheat, the central threshing bay and a storage bay for threshed wheat make up the length. It was common for the barns to be oriented such that the wind could blow from east to west completely through the large doors on the central drive bay for the purpose of winnowing the grain. Often wheat would be winnowed in the winter months, after it had dried and during times when fieldwork was impossible. Many settlement barns were built on low limestone foundations, or piers. Starting in the 1850s, it was not uncommon to relocate and retrofit them into bank barns with tall foundations that could shelter livestock during the winter months for feeding or other animal husbandry needs. The climate in the upper Midwest can be harsh, much harsher than many settlers from New England and Europe bargained for, or had experience with. The climate produces tornadoes and high winds year round, massive thunderstorms, deep snows, and air temperatures from as low as -25°F (- 32°C) up to 105°F (40°C), high humidity and an endless supply of black mud. The depth of soil, or distance to bedrock, is probably one of the main reasons that led to the failure of many structures built on the prairies.

Many buildings have simply settled or sunk in the ground, or been destroyed by frost heaving. In some cases, the glacial till of the Midwest is 150ft (46m) deep to bedrock. The early settlers were unprepared for life on the prairie landscape. The early winters of the 1830’s were perhaps the harshest as the new settlers from Europe and New England adapted to life on the prairie. In fact the winter of 1831 is called the "winter of deep snow", and in 1836 settlers experienced the effects of the ‘winter of the deep freeze'. countless new settlers died in the early years as they and their livestock acclimatised to the new environment. Probably for climatic reasons, along with declining
wheat prices, within 10-30 years of construction all or most of the threshing barns built in the 1840s were converted to serve also as shelter for livestock. By 1850 traditional threshing barns are built more frequently with the integration of livestock uses in the floor plan, and the last of the single purpose threebay threshing barns are gone. These newly adapted structures have versatile floor plans, and are relatively simple to cut and erect, so much so that we continue
to see them constructed well into the early 20th Century, though with multiple uses in mind.

The 1842 Garfield barn I surveyed is a portrait from a window of time in Illinois that existed for a relatively short span. The region was full of the optimism and promise of a bright and better future for settlers and the settler gambled on the best barn they could build in a harsh landscape filled with the serene beauty of the prairie, rivers, and forests.
The 1842 Garfield barn is located in La Fox, Illinois, and is owned by a nonprofit that uses the barn on its museum grounds for the purpose of education. Initially, we were asked to supply purlins and oak shingles for this building. Fortunately the roof retains some of its original 1½” x 3” (40mm x 75mm) white oak roof sheathing so we were able to replicate the size and spacing and draw some conclusions about shingle type. The original spacing appears to have been 10-10½” (250-267mm) on centre. At 1½” (40mm) thick, they were clearly meant to span the 3’6”
(1066mm) centre-to-centre distance between rafters. According to C. Keith Wilbur in Home Building and Colonial Woodworking in America (1992), when thatching was found impractical, 'Shingles split from oak…were the weather-worthy answers (to thatch). When laid in overlapping rows nailed to the (original) 1” x 3” (25mm x 75mm) thatch purlins, water quickly drained down the fibrous grooves of the split surfaces (of the wood shingle). Underneath, a free circulation of air prevented rot.' Wilbur goes on to say "when thatching was found impractical, the 1” x 3” (25mm x 75mm) purlins spaced every 8” (200mm) on the rafter were used for nailing the wood shingles". I am not suggesting that the original Garfield roof was thatch, as thatch roofs are much steeper than 1/3 pitch, but I would suggest that the  New England builder, perhaps carried with him the tradition of using 1½” x 3” (40mmx 75mm) laths as roof sheathing from the earlier days of thatch, and a 10½” (267mm) lath spacing would provide a plausible nailing pattern (which equals the shingle exposure) for an early wood shingle roof in Illinois. Some early riven wood shingles in Illinois were 30” (762mm) long; at that length a 10” (250mm) exposure would give triple coverage, which remains
the standard today. Prior to most restoration projects we undertake we complete a set of drawings. I spent a few days working with existing drawings and with the actual building measurements I found, and developed a new more complete set of drawings. From my time spent on this it is clear that this barn was laid out using dividers and  traditional building geometry.

The entire structure falls within the diameters of just two circles. All of the locations for intersecting members can be derived from these two diameters and they are related to each other such that the diameter of the smaller is the  radius of the larger. For example the height of the eave wall is little more than half the width of the building (eave wall height is about a rod), and the diagonal length of the building in plan is about twice the width of the gable wall.
The Garfield barn is also a typical simple square rule barn. It is clear that all joinery was taken from a regular reference face, and that all members had a regular reference. While the reference for the wall girts and the reference for the tie beams may differ on the same post, all like pieces have similar reference. In short all purlin plates share a common reference to the queen posts; all tie beams share a common reference to the posts etc. However with the post to wall girt relationship it became clear that the girts (which are generally flattened on 1 side only as opposed to hewn square as the rest of the building) are housed on both sides. This is subtly different than how square rule  evolved in later years in IL and on into the early 20th Century, as later there was not typically a housing on the  reference face.

Jack Sobon, in his book (Historic American Timber Joinery p.30) discusses how this particular style of joinery is indicative of square rule frames: 'to save on hewing, those members were flattened only on the face receiving the wall sheathing. The ends are squared up at the joint. The post has its ideal-timber within centered so the girts are housed both sides'. In its current form, the Garfield barn has a dirt floor, however the original barn had a wood floor with most likely a reinforced threshing floor. The original sill plates show mortises for log joists and in almost
all cases the early wood floors rot out of barns and are not repaired. Calkins and Perkins discuss this in (Barns of the Midwest, referenced in the Minnesota Heritage Farms Study on pp 6.493 – 6.495). Noting 'the barns often had foundations of stone or brick, and wooden floors . . . The flooring of the central bay was often reinforced to support the weight of loaded wagons'. With a wooden floor in place access to the floor would be achieved via a wooden ramp, or fold in ramp (also know as a threshold), both common from that time period.

During my initial frame survey it appeared as if the barn might have had a swing beam on one of the center bents. Since the core of the barn is missing it is difficult to understand the interior original intent of the building, however there are several indicators that it did indeed originally have a swing beam on bent (cross frame) 3. Allen Noble and Richard Cleek discuss this variation in threshing barns in (The Old Barn Book p.78). 'Some three bay threshing barns are constructed with a swing beam, a beam larger than the others which extends unsupported from front to
back of the barn on one side of the threshing floor. It permits threshing of grain and/or turning of teams, unhindered by a post.' The swing beam is similar to a second lower tie beam, continuous in length in bent direction, and unsupported by additional post work. In the case of Garfield barn there is clearly a missing bent direction member below the main upper tie beam, and it has several features that would lead us to believe it was a large swing beam: Firstly, like only the 4 main tie beams it was fastened by 1½” (40mm) diameter pegs, all other pegs are 1” (25mm) Secondly, like the main tie beams it has a 2½” (65mm) mortice, not 1½” (40mm) mortices like every other member
in the building.

Thirdly, the housings show that it is also clearly a much larger timber than even the tie beams and bent girts on bent on the other bents. And finally, the bent 3 posts have a series of mortices (3 per posts) at waist height, none of which have peg holes. The upper and lower mortices are 'unfinished' meaning that they are not squared off, the center
mortice is squared off, and on one post the center mortice is relieved in such a way as to allow the removal of that member, certainly an adaptation for a removable 'mowstead' wall. In additional support of the theory that this building
was used primarily as a threshing barn (not livestock), we have an early photo of an existing small door (the only daily access to the building) within the two larger doors, giving us the indication that the main doors may have not been used in the winter at all, and only taken off during the summer months or for threshing. There were also likely no windows in the original structure other than a transom window above both large entry doors. Eric Sloan  discusses this in (An Age of Barns p.86): 'with the earliest American barns, the large main door was a removable partition and often did not even have hinges. It was fastened shut all winter and taken off for the summer . . . the
large threshing floor was kept free and clean' he goes on to say 'An earlier sliding door ran on metal strips . . . this was a larger door with a smaller one within it’s framework'. This barn also gives us very little indication that windows or doors of any type were ever installed in the original plan. Early threshing barns were closed in buildings with very limited openings, and typically the siding was installed with a one-inch gap between all of the boards to allow for ventilation. Calkins and Perkins discuss this in Barns of the Midwest. 'Originally and throughout much of history, the three bay threshing barn was a single function structure. Its specific association with grain farming was well established . . . No self respecting farmer would keep animals in his threshing barn.' In general, the Garfield barn does not seem to have any internal rooms, though based on the locations of the remaining joist mortices in the sill plate, there may have been granary walls on one end of the building. There are also joist mortices in the tie
beams directly over the threshing floor, and in the end bay there are two levels of joist mortises, one at the potential swing beam height, and another at the straining beam height.

This giving the end bay of the barn with potential granary walls, 3 distinct floor levels. Calkins and Perkins discuss this is some detail (in Barns of the Midwest, and referenced in the Minnesota Heritage Farms Study on pp 6.493 – 6.495). 'Strictly-defined threshing barns were generally one story, gable roofed rectangular buildings . . . the centralbay was often used as a driveway, and historically ~ before threshing was mechanized in the 1850’s and
1860’s ~ as a threshing floor. The door openings were large enough to allow a fully loaded wagon, pulled by a team, to enter and exit the central bay.' They go on to explain what others have agreed with regarding the use of the buildings as single function in so much as cattle or horses were not kept in early threshing barns. 'One of the flanking bays was usually used to store grain sheaves waiting to be threshed, while the other stored threshed grain to be used for feed, as well as grain straw, which was used for livestock bedding. In all cases we have little  indication of any other doors or even windows for that matter except for what are clearly doorposts, or wall posts (for some intermediate wall) in the granary end bay.' Again Calkins and Perkins discuss this attribute of single use threshing barns. "Threshing barns rarely had windows other than a small window at the peak of the gable, and a row of small transom windows above the door openings." In the 1842 barn, the structure of the exterior walls is
intact, and based on floor levels there would be little opportunity for windows for animals at all. 

It is clear that the 1842 barn was built as a threshing barn, yet due to the lack of internal structure it is difficult to determine exactly what the floor configuration was like. However, I will reiterate a few known factors: the entire 1st floor was planked (including the drive bay), the open bay served as a single level mow, the middle bay served as the drive bay with a 2nd floor at tie beam level (planked), the granary bay had multiple floors (3 storeys and all planked), it is very likely the original bent 3 configuration involved a swing beam resulting in a potential clear span. There are a series of mortices in bent 3 posts, which suggest the ability to remove a wall, or gate section as needed. Based on these facts and our research we can assume the following things were in this barn within its first decade or so of existence (until modern threshing became the norm in the 1850’s and 1860’s): The barn had at least a 1st floor granary and possibly 2nd and 3rd floor storage for sheaves, and that below the potential swing beam was a removable mowstead wall.

In summary, the 1842 Garfield barn has had many different uses over time and it is likely that the original use of that building changed rather quickly from the time it was built. Over it’s life, certainly the barn housed animals, protected grain, straw, and hay, stored equipment, processed wheat and other grains, sheltered animals in inclement weather, and provided a place for other farm related chores such as fixing equipment or fabricating tools, and tending to the needs of livestock. In a climate of constantly evolving agriculture the barns of the Midwest have
had to change radically from the time that they were built. It’s a testament to the enduring character of a timber frame structure that they endure today in an economic, cultural, and industrial climate that is certainly inhospitable to them.

- Rick Collins' article published in the August 2009 edition of the Carpenter's Fellowship Mortise and Tenon

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