Dutch Barn Preservation Society

Dedicated to the Study and Preservation
of New World Dutch Barns


Agrarian Changes: Learning from Barn Additions

By Neil Larson
Dutch barns are extraordinarily rich documents of life in our past. Built across two centuries and adapted to new uses for another one hundred years, the barns are a fusion of Old World traditions and New World innovations; their evolution offers insight into a changing agricultural society and illustrates evolving building technology.

Originally, Dutch barns were designed for use in the growing, storing and processing of wheat. The wheat industry dominated the Hudson Valley economy until the early nineteenth century; in the Schoharie and Mohawk valleys, wheat was the major crop into the 1840's. In each region, as blights occurred and rising non-farm populations increased the demand for fresh market products, large-scale crop farming shifted from wheat-growing to milk production. Nearly all of the surviving unrestored Dutch barns show evidence of alterations to meet the requirements of changing farming practices. These alterations often make it difficult to discern the original appearance and functions of the barns, but a study of these additions and renovations provides an understanding of the barn in the context of the changing occupational patterns and cultural attitudes of the ethnic communities that built the barns and continued to use them.

When the function of the Dutch barn changed to accommodate dairying, the spaces within it were rearranged and augmented to house more animals, to provide easier access to the fronts and rears of animals for feeding, cleaning and milking, and to store hay in addition to grain.

The early eighteenth century Johannes Skinkle Barn on Route 9H, Columbia County, NY was altered by the insertion of new wagon doors. The original door openings in the gable ends were covered with siding. Photo by Shirley Dunn.

One popular alteration was rotating the center aisle axis 90 degrees and inserting new doors on the side walls, creating a plan more akin to English barns of the period. In addition to increasing the space for animals, changing the access so that the aisle went between anchor beams rather than under them allowed more headroom for hay wagons. Most other existing barn types in New York State and elsewhere were also modified in this dairying period as moving and storing hay more easily within the barn became a matter of major concern. (Dutch barns actually accommodated hay track systems better than English barns since their roof framing did not rely on collar beams.)

The reorganization of interior storage space for feed and bedding was easily accomplished; however, introducing space for an increased number of cows required physical alterations to the barn. If an addition was not feasible, farmers would construct stanchions in the side aisles or at one end under a hay mow. In some cases, an entire floor was constructed just under the anchor beams to create a cow house on the ground level and hay storage above, but this must have been done after grain was no longer threshed in the barn. A more radical solution was to raise the old barn on a stone basement. This innovation was a direct response to the progressive agricultural literature of the period, which advocated housing livestock at a basement level for ease of handling and feeding.

Raising the roof was an alternative for increasing the volume of Dutch barns, at least in the western reaches of the Hudson Valley, where a few examples survive. New sections of posts approximately five feet high were inserted above existing posts and purlins. New purlins with braces then tied the new posts together. In the illustrated example, the original roof framing was apparently reused, necessitating elevating the side walls an equal height. The direct result of this change was increased capacity for hay storage; however, physical evidence suggests that it usually coincided with a complete reorganization of space within the barn which created cow stalls in a side aisle and at one end of the barn.

In addition to adding to the tops and bottoms of Dutch barns, farmers increased barn size by adding to the ends. Field investigations indicate that the common choice for an addition was to extend the length of the barn with construction of a similar form along the same roof axis, in effect creating a longer, rectangular barn. Side doors, ramps into upper level hay mows, excavated basements and other alterations were often introduced at the same time. In the Schoharie Valley, while end additions were sometimes made, there are a number of examples unique to that region in which separate rectangular barn frames were abutted perpendicularly to the ridge line of the old Dutch barns.

The Godigheit Barn, Schoharie County, NY shows a perpendicular addition at the rear that was typical of the Schoharie Valley. Photo by Harold Zoch.




View of interior of the Godigheit Barn is from the addition looking into the old Dutch barn in the background. Photo by Harold Zoch.




New 4'8" sections were added to the posts above the existing purlins to raise the roof on the Johannes Decker Barn, Shawangunk, Ulster County, NY. New purlins were added to support the roof rafters. All new members were mill-sawn with a circular blade. Posts were sawn with a tongue to overlap the old post and bolted fast. Note hayloft added in rear creating animal space below. Historic American Buildings Survey:

Construction in additions sometimes replicated the Dutch methods but in every case the new structures were in sharp contrast to the old, with later builders often using less substantial materials and displaying far less concern for craftsmanship than had the original builder.

Dutch barns are "Dutch" as much for the cultural group they came to symbolize as for their form and structure. Their distinctive construction method was derived from the well established aisled barn tradition of northern Europe. The "Dutch" -ness of these barns, however, is actually less dramatic in their direct transplantation in the seventeenth century from the wheat-growing areas of northern Europe to the wheat-growing areas of colonial New York and New Jersey than in the persistence of their image on the landscape in the rapidly changing society and economy of this region following the Revolution.

With nationhood, rural ethnic communities in these old "Dutch" valleys were forced to defend their identities against the onslaught of vast numbers of newcomers and the snowballing momentum of the frantic popular culture wrought by independence and the idea of unlimited opportunity. Therefore, while Dutch barns were being transformed to new functional requirements, the region was in the midst of a battle between old and new, for cultural supremacy that found vivid expression in politics, religion, social behavior, the arts. . . and architecture. The amount of conscious, non-essential effort that went into the construction and preservation of the Dutch barns suggests that these buildings also served as emblems of ethnic solidarity. The final analysis of functional changes in these buildings will not be complete until this expressive dimension of cultural continuity in their design is addressed.

Neil Larson is Curator for the Dutchess County Historical Society. He was formerly with the N.Y.S. Field Services Bureau.

FALL 1988 Newsletter, Part TWO

The Dutch Barn Preservation Society

c/o The Mabee Farm Historic Site
1080 Main St. (Rt. 5S)
Rotterdam Junction, NY 12150

Site Phone: (518) 887-5073



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