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Saving Vermont’s agricultural heritage

Barn Census seeks to catalog, preserve historic farm buildings

TOWNSHEND—The Vermont Barn Census seeks to answer two questions: How many barns are there in Vermont, and what can be done to preserve these icons?

Since 2008, volunteers have helped the barn census to catalog more than 2000 barns and other agricultural buildings across the state — from 18th century English barns to the massive dairy barns of the 20th century.

“Barns are part of our rural landscape and heritage,” Joshua Phillips, state Barn Census Director, told the 50 or so people who came to hear him describe the challenges of cataloging and preserving Vermont historic barns and agricultural buildings in a talk on Sunday at the Town Hall.

Phillips set out a short history of Vermont barn architecture in the context of agricultural development. The event was sponsored by the Historical Society of Windham County.

Phillips works for the state Division for Historic Preservation, which has done surveys of historic buildings since the 1970s. Barns are a relatively recent addition to the agency’s efforts.

The National Historical Preservation Act identifies any structure at least 50 years old as “historic,” said Phillips, who came equipped with a computer-generated slide show, which he said he tailors to the particular region he is visiting. Thus, Townshend and surrounding communities were highlighted on Sunday.

Snapshot of Vermont agriculture

Before the 1760s, Phillips said, agriculture in the state was characterized as subsistence.

“But,” he said, “real Vermonters will make do with anything to make money from farming.”

In the early 1800s, Vermont served as the breadbasket of New England. Then came the boom in sheep farming. Phillips said Merino sheep were brought from Spain to Weathersfield in 1809, and sheep raised for wool operated under a protective tariff until the 1840s, when Australia and New Zealand killed the wool market in Vermont.

A slight wool boom arose during the Civil War, when cotton was scarce and army uniforms were made of wool. But by the end of the 19th century, improvements in transportation helped make dairy farming the big industry in Vermont, and that, in turn, prompted changes in barn design.

Phillips said that the English barn, a small 30-foot-by-40-foot structure that provided space for threshing hay, as well as tool storage and a few animal stalls, was the design of choice in the early years of Vermont agriculture.

In the 19th century, the Yankee barn, modest in scale but bigger than the English version, came into vogue. The main design feature was the hinged or sliding doors on the gable end.

Then came the early bank barns, like their predecessors but built into a hill, creating a basement in which to store manure.

From the 1870s to the 1900s, a more ornamental architecture developed, especially in the large or late bank barns.

But practicality dictated the design of barns. For example, the ubiquitous cupola was introduced not as an architectural conceit, but to cover a hole in the roof for an exhaust system that dispelled manure dust and smell. Later on, it became a design feature.

Farmers began to adapt their barns, especially with regard to sanitation and safety, as farming methods changed. Wooden floors were replaced by concrete and, as dairy herds became larger, so did the barns.

Phillips showed slides of several barns in Townshend and Grafton, examples of adaptations inspired by new methods of manure management and a gravity flow system for feed and waste.

Saving the horses from backing up was the inspiration of the round or polygonal barn, Phillips said, describing horse-drawn wagons entering the round barn and continuing around to unload or unharness. Not many round barns were built, and few still stand in Vermont, Phillips said.

Other buildings sprang up, such as ash houses (for potash, once a major ingredient in many products, including soap), small windowless structures with gable roofs; chicken coops or henhouses, usually long wooden structures with multiple windows and ventilation devices; and apple barns, one to two stories, with either a gable or gambrel roof and entrances wide enough for wagons.

Silos, corn cribs, farm shops for multiple uses, fox and mink sheds, potato barns, root cellars, milk houses, ice houses, piggeries, tobacco barns, and smoke houses are other examples of structures that were devoted to very specific agricultural uses.

Phillips said he was anxious to continue the barn census. Anyone interested in participating in the program may contact him at (802) 828-1220 or by e-mail.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #112 (Wednesday, August 3, 2011).

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