Monday, May 15, 2017

Barns in Colonial Pennsylvania

18th Century Swiss-style Pennsylvania forebay bank barn
Do you like barns? I’ve always had this thing for these imposing structures. Which is probably to be expected since I’m the daughter of Mennonite farmers and grew up on a farm. You get a mystical feeling standing in an old barn with its huge hand-hewn beams and hay mows overhead, roof timbers soaring high above like the ribbed vaults of a cathedral, and dust motes lazily trailing down through the golden sunbeams that slant through the cracks between the weathered boards of the exterior walls. I even have a Pinterest board devoted to Barns and Farms.

Berks County, c. 1820
So today I’m going to indulge in my addiction and take a look at the barns of the Germans who settled in Pennsylvania during the 18th and 19th centuries. Descended from generations of farmers, the Germans who immigrated to Pennsylvania during the 1700s were among the best farmers in the colonies. The soil they found in this new land was unlike the over-farmed soil of their homeland in that it required little fertilization. So they went to work, and after building a house and clearing land for fields, they built immense Swiss-style bank barns like the one shown in the picture above of the James Barn, located in West Rockhill Township, Bucks County.

The first log structures were soon replaced by barns built of stone, and later frame or even brick, with shingled, slate, or tin roofs. Most barns had 3 levels, with a threshing-floor and granary on the main floor and expansive mows for storing hay above. The lower level provided stalls for horses and cattle and a milking parlor. These buildings were anywhere from 50 to 60 feet wide and 60 to 120 feet long, and typically the main level protruded 8 to 10 feet beyond the lower level, as you can see in the picture above right from the Pennsylvania Historical Museum and Commission.

The classic Pennsylvania barn is most commonly found in the southeast and central parts of the state and was the most prevalent barn structure to around 1900. Most closely associated with the Pennsylvania Germans, it developed during the later 18th century with the spread of diversified grain-and-livestock farming that required efficient labor management to produce cash grain crops, primarily wheat; feed grain for cattle and horses such as oats, corn, and hay; and livestock that provided beef, dairy products, and pork to eat and to sell.

Carriage Hill Farm
Some of these barns had stars, hearts, diamonds, quarter-moons, or other designs painted on their sides and ends. The picture above left from my Pinterest board shows what we typically envision when we think of Pennsylvania German barns adorned with painted symbols. It’s of newer construction, and it has both plank and stone cladding.

Last summer I visited Carriage Hill Farm, a restored 1880s German Baptist farm in Huber Heights, Ohio. Although this farm dates to the late 19th century and is located in Ohio, the barn, shown to the right retains many of the features you’d see in earlier Pennsylvania structures.

Carriage Hill barn main level

At left is a shot I took of the barn’s main level. You can see the hand-hewn beams above the threshing floor. Obviously tobacco was a cash crop here. Below is a picture of the grain bins along the right side of the threshing floor, each neatly labeled with the grain stored inside.

Carriage Hill barn grain bins

The last picture is of the barn’s lower level, showing a walkway between one of the stalls on the left, with storage bins and feeding troughs for another stall on the right. Clearly these barns were designed for the greatest labor efficiency, with gravity allowing hay and grain to be fed down to animals on the lower level with the least amount of effort. Indeed the barn was the farmer’s most important tool for his work.

Do you love barns too? If so, do you have a favorite barn? Where is it located (if you know), what do you know about the barn, and what do you particularly love about it?

J. M. Hochstetler is a descendant of Jacob Hochstetler’s oldest son John. An author, editor, and publisher, she is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series, won ForeWord Magazine’s 2014 INDYFAB Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, released in April. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year.


  1. I loved this post! I've not looked inside a working barn in PA, just the tourist ones that are facsimiles. Would be fun to go inside a real working Amish barn. Thanks for the interesting post.

    1. Barns are wonderful structures, Connie, especially the old ones with hand-hewn beams. You'll find many of them on Amish farms throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, and I love to do a road trip to take pictures. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Thank you for sharing this interesting post. I love barns and really found them interesting in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa. There are some great barns in our fine country.

    1. There really are a lot of wonderful old barns in this country, Melanie. And many are still being used today. I love it when farmers take care of their old barns and keep them in service. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. What beautiful barns! Thanks for this trip back in time. One favorite barn here in Nebraska is the Elijah Filley stone barn. It's always sad to watch as local barns sway and collapse. I do love seeing the way crafters reclaim some of the wood, though ... and I love seeing Barn Quilts.

  4. Stephanie, thank you for stopping by and sharing your favorite barn! LOVE stone barns, and those barn quilts are really neat. We have a lot of them in my area in northern Indiana. I also hate to see neglected old barns deteriorate and collapse. There's something really sad about losing one of these iconic American structures, and seeing those that are preserved and cared for is a delight!

  5. Wonderful pictures to compliment this great post. Thank you for sharing. Barns have a story all of their own. I recall our family barn and have seen the inside of many other barns including Amish barns here in Illinois.