Background: The desire for greater efficiency led to the emergence of several dairy barn types inn the early twentieth century. One of these types was the round or polygonal barn. According to barn historian Richard Truimpho, the first polygonal agricultural building in the United States was a sixteen-sided barn erected in 1793 for George Washington's Dogue Run Farm in Fairfax County, Virginia, designed to provide a protected place to thresh wheat. A second early polygonal barn was erected at Keswick, near Charlottesville, Virginia.
The earliest round dairy barn in the United States was the magnificent stone and wood-framed Shaker barn of 1824 that still stands in Hancock, Massachusetts.
Shaker Family Round Barn, Hancock, Massachusetts. Photograph by Jack E. Boucher, 1962.
Round barns were comparatively rare until the twentieth century when agricultural extension programs and agricultural schools in the Midwest started to tout their efficiency:
When a country men is convinced that he can save from thirty-four to fifty-eight percent of the cost of a rectagular barn by constructing a round barn of similar area he usually becomes decidely enthusiastic about this unique building, other things being equal.
Among the characteristics of the round barn was the placement of a wood, brick or concrete silo in the barn's center. This location not only made it easier to distribute silage to cows but served as support for the roof.
University of Illinois Round Barn. HABS ILL-1121. Delineated by Kate Doyle. Note the central silo.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, round barns began to be erected in large numbers. For example, in New York State, the earliest such barn was the William H. Voorhees Barn of 1895, erected in Montgomery County. A Herkimer County barn followed the next year. More widespread construction occurred in the early twentieth century. For example, two of the state;s best known round barns, the Young and the Bates, both on Route 12 in Greene, Chenango County, were erected in 1914-1914 and 1928-1931, respectively.
The Young Round Barn, Greene, New York.
A notable advocated of the round dairy barn was Professor Wilbur J. Fraser, the first head of the Department of Dairy Husbandry at the University of Illinois. At his instigation, three round dairy barns were built on that campus between 1907 and 1910. In the Midewest, the greatest number or round and other nonorthagonal barns were built by local craftsmen.
Twenty-sided barm, Wisconsin.
The fad for round and polygonal barns was short-lived as their limitations became apparent. Some critics pointed to purported difficulties filling the mow, the inconvenience of wedge-shaped stalls, and the difficulty of admitting light. Others pointed to the waste of materials in construction and the large diameter needed for efficient operation. By about 1930, new nonorthagonal barn construction had largely ceased.
Locations: Uncommon but found throughout the United States.
Construction Techniques: Twentieth century round barns almost invariably employed balloon frame construction. The use of this construction technique instead of traditional post and beam construction enabled a circular interior construction. Often structures were built around the central cylindrical silo and brace at the center b\y its structure. The outer edge of the structure was braced at the outer edge by exterior walls and intermediately by a laminated beam supported by posts buried in the walls of the feed alley, feed trough openings. Typically such barns were of two levels, the lower level housing the cows, while the upper level was the hay mow.
A variety of roof types were employed including self-supported structures such as domes and variety of gambrels; roofs sometimes self-supported such as the conical and sectional cone; and those that required support including a modified hip, flat, and monitor.
Dimensions: The typical round barn measures approximately 100 feet in diameter.