With over 200 barns surveyed, I have learned a lot about the form and structure of the barns of Shenandoah County. I know that about 75% of our historic (pre-1950) barns are forebay bank barns. As a reminder, the forebay is the part that juts out over the doors to the animal stalls which are on the lower level of the barn. Barn experts often use the term "Standard Pennsylvania Barn" to describe these barns. That term is quite apt, because the forebay bank barn in America emerged in the rich farm country just west of Philadelphia. Most early settlers in Shenandoah County came from that part of Pennsylvania and brought their barn archtecture with them. I am almost certain that Shenandoah County has more surviving Standard Pennsylvania Barns than any county outside Pennsylvania.
I have learned about mortise and tenon joinery, roof structures, foundation types, summer beams, animal stall configuration and hay storage arrangements. If you want to talk about the size of our barns, or about the parts of barns or about how to estimate the period of construction for a barn, just start a conversation with me and I will go on and on and on. But all of these matters relate to the physical properties of our barns. These barn elements are easy to touch and see and measure and photograph. Two years into my new career as a barn surveyor, I am becoming increasingly aware of something else.
Barns represent lifestyle, human endeavor and community from an era not yet completely erased by digital technology, instant communications and labor saving devices. Muscle-powered agriculture (animal and human) required consistent effort, knowledge, determination, patience and endurance. These qualities cannot be seen, measured with a steel tape or photographed, but they can be sensed in an old barn. Farmers had to visit their barn at least twice a day, seven days a week. Livestock occupied the lower levels of barns and demanded the caring efforts of owners. Hay was harvested, transported and stored in the barn. Then distributed at the right time and in the right amount for the animals at each farm. Grain was gathered and taken to the barn to be threshed at harvest time. Neighbors helped each other with this significant chore most often for no pay other than receiving the same help when it was their turn.The very act of constructing a barn was a community act. The farmer owner and the master builder discussed what kind of barn was needed and how big it was to be, but on barn-raising day, it was the friends and neighbors who, quite literally, did the heavy lifting.
In thinking about what to write about the barns of Shenandoah County, I have decided that I want to do more than provide accurate descriptions, images and statistics. These all matter and must be done well to preserve the history of our barns. Equally important is the way in which barns document the people who built, used and worked in and around barns. The legacy of their lifestyle is still with us. Bits of that legacy can be found in the pencil notes of threshing day on granary walls, in the empty hay fork hanging from the roof of the barn, in the carefully laid stone foundations and the tool marks on framing timbers. There are still a few folks who remember working on and in barns many decades ago. I always enjoy talking with them and still have much to learn.