A recent article on Facebook listing 12 beautiful barns in the Bluegrass caught my eye the other day. Excited, I clicked, scrolled, and then I sighed. While I am always happy to see articles extolling Kentucky’s amazing buildings, I didn’t think this list was…all that great. I am in a different position than many when it comes to Kentucky barns: not only am I a farmer’s daughter, with a deep appreciation for the oft-humble and ignored barn, but I study and document them professionally. (Yes Virginia, you can study barns!) So I thought I would start highlighting some of the hundreds of barns I’ve encountered – both on the Gardens to Gables Facebook page and in a more in-depth fashion here.
Long before burley tobacco was introduced in Kentucky, and the ubiquitous tobacco barn came to dominate the landscape, the most common barn in the Bluegrass was a log crib. I discussed this type in another post but in brief, the simplest (and earliest) barns were built in cribs, or pens, of rectangular stacked logs. These cribs usually had a raised wooden floor, and held hay or corn. Today most of these structures are hidden inside a later superstructure, and it is only when you venture inside, eyes blinking to adjust to the low light, that you see the original barn.
When I first saw this barn in Mercer County, Kentucky, it looked like a standard English barn, which while not common, isn’t a rare specimen either. The English barn is distinguished by openings on the long side of the barn, not on the gable end, like most barns in the state. Typically the barn will have a central aisle, open to the roof, which will allow a wagon to be driven into the barn. On either side of the central aisle are side aisles, usually divided into stalls for livestock, with lofts above for the storing of hay and grain.
The Mercer County barn follows this pattern, to some extent. It has sliding doors at either end of the central aisle, on the north and south elevations. Inside, two cribs face each other across the central aisle. The one on the west side is log, and the one on the east is frame.
The log crib is V-notched, and one-bay wide; the door jamb is pegged into the logs. It is 17 logs high, with a massive sill resting on stone piers and a wooden floor. The batten door on the front of the log crib is constructed of circular sawn boards with cut nails. Saw marks can help narrow down construction dates for barns – but it is always conjecture, unless you are lucky enough to stumble across archival documents that state exactly when a structure was built (this very rarely happens).
You might think that as the farmer’s needs changed, the log crib got surrounded by a larger, more modern barn. While in a sense that is true, shed extensions off of log cribs were common very early, sometimes right after the log crib was built. A farmer might construct shed extensions (for example, a lean-to) to shelter livestock and protect the logs from the weather. Over time, these extensions or lean-tos might become larger and taller, until they completely obscured the original log crib.
Some of the logs on the crib displayed evidence of reuse – spaces hewn out for non-existent joists (which would have supported a floor/ceiling) or other members. Behind the log crib, on the west side of the barn, are four stalls, each with an exterior door. These stalls area appear to have a fairly early construction period (not too long after the initial construction of the two cribs); built with circular sawn lumber, they contain built-in mangers and troughs. The stalls were likely used for the farm’s mules and horses.
The evolution of this barn is uncommon only in that the different building periods aren’t usually all still intact. It seems that the barn started with the log crib, and soon after, the farmer built another crib across from it, perhaps with a covered aisle between the two. That would have provided shelter for a wagon, or livestock, and set the stage for the exterior of the barn appearing as it does today.
This barn likely won’t win any beauty pageants – but then, unlike houses, the outbuildings that supported the work of the historic Kentucky farm were designed to be functional and not necessarily pretty, and to adapt to the changing needs of the farmer. I like to say that dwellings show how people wanted to be perceived – and the outbuildings on the farm (barns, corncribs, granaries, etc.) show how people worked and really lived.
And, it does prove the old adage right – you can’t judge a book by its cover! I always imagine, when I go inside old barns, the daily rhythms of the farm family as they went about their day. The structure I photograph, and puzzle over, was part of their livelihood, and the stories I can spin about its origins or use, barely scratch the surface of what the building could tell us.