Firestone Barn, a Pennsylvania Bank Barn
Barns are one of the best ways to tell where you are when you are traveling—especially if you happened to be traveling through the United States 150 years ago.
Barns are generally the largest man-made feature of the rural landscape. They can tell you a lot about the type of farming that is going on, as well as the cultural background of the family that built them. Unlike houses or commercial buildings, barns generally lack stylistic adornment. Since building a barn was often a community undertaking, the general form and the details of barn construction often changed slowly—barn-builders were limited to construction techniques that everyone in the community knew how to do. As a result, until the late 1800s, barns tended to differ more from place-to-place, than they did over time.
The barn at the Firestone Farm tells us that the Firestone family was of German ancestry, that people from the Germanic sections of Pennsylvania settled the community where the family lived in Ohio, and that their farm was the typical mix of livestock and grain crops found in the northeast and upper Midwestern United States.
What physical clues tell us this?
The Firestone barn is of a type known as a Pennsylvania-German bank barn, or “Sweitzer” barn, one of the primary barn types found in the United States before 1880. Bank barns are large, multi-purpose structures that combined several farm functions under a single roof. Two-story and rectangular in form, they have a gable roof with a ridgeline running the length of the building. They are called bank barns because one side of the barn is built into the bank of a hill, allowing wagons to be driven into the upper floor of the barn. The opposite side of the barn has an overhang, known as a projecting forebay. Livestock were kept in the lower story of the barn.
These Pennsylvania-German bank barns were American adaptations of barn forms found in the high valleys of eastern Switzerland. This traditional form evolved, beginning in the 1500s, in response to the harsh Alpine weather. It proved to be a very effective design for the cold winters of the northeastern United States and, over the years, many features of the design were adapted to American barns. The bank barn was efficient because large amounts grain and hay could be processed and stored above the livestock area, and then tossed down to the animals when needed, with gravity doing all the work. The projecting forebay side of the barn provided shelter to the stalls below, keeping the doorways clear of snow and ice. The bank barn is also an early example of passive solar design. Generally oriented to a southern exposure, the projecting forebay provided cooling shade to the livestock during the summer when the sun was at a high angle, and provided heat and sunlight during the winter, when the sun was at a lower angle.
The Firestone Barn was built in Columbiana County, Ohio, about 1830. It is a variant of the Pennsylvania bank style, featuring overhanging bays on both the front and rear of the barn. This particular design was promoted in an 1838 issue of a magazine called the Farmer’s Cabinet, and the design is most frequently found in Ohio.
The effectiveness of the bank barn design is shown by how closely it followed the migration of German-Americans from Pennsylvania to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, southern Ontario, Maryland and Virginia, and by how many of these barns remain in use today. The innovative new barns developed by progressive farmers in the late 1800s adopted many features of the bank barn: its bank design, the large hay storage capacity, and the sheltered livestock areas in the lower levels.
So, look around the next time you travel through farm country. Gazing at the barns may not help you find the next gas station—but they can tell you a lot about where you are.
Jim McCabe is former Head of Collections Management at The Henry Ford.
by Jim McCabe, farms and farming, agriculture, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village