A relatively simple agricultural structure, the American barn represents so much more than its practical purpose of housing animals, equipment, fodder and other farming elements. While they still play an important function today, barns also represent a simple, classic and rugged American elegance that is seemingly rare in our modern age.

But while they are great material for paintings and grainy photographs, a good barn can still serve a number of important purposes, either on a farm or a residential area. These simple, sturdy pieces of American architecture are still used for all of their traditional farming uses, as well as a number of more modern functions such as garages, equipment sheds, guest houses or even trendy mini homes. Although they may not be as common as they once were along the rural American landscape, these structures are beginning to pop up in more surprising areas and for a growing number of uses.

The Past, Present and Future of American Barns

The First Barns

Although farming structures have existed for thousands of years, what we typically think of as the modern barn first originated in Western Europe around the 12th century. During the Middle Ages, these structures were also used for a number of purposes in addition to their common agricultural functions, including for churches and meeting halls. As architecture began to evolve and become more sophisticated, this style of building remained in popular use for its simplicity, durability and adaptability.

When colonists first began moving to America, they brought livestock and their agricultural knowledge with them, and this included the timber frame barn. The earliest American barns were built as log crib barns from timbers that were hewn from the local area. Stone barns were also built in areas where solid timber access was limited or less practical.

Newer Methods

During the middle of the 19th century, barn framing and construction began to move away from these traditional framing methods towards truss framing (also known as plank framing). This method simplified the building process of a type of structure in which simplicity was key. It required fewer timbers than older techniques using dimensional lumber for rafters and joists, as well as sometimes for the trusses.

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Building techniques were again revolutionized with the method of nailing or bolting joints instead being mortised or tenoned. As metal nails began to be more readily available as a result of mass production, this method provided the clearly superior option. It allowed farmers to construct a barn in a fraction of the time, with less materials needed and increased durability, all while providing the same storage space and livestock access.

Steel Barns

As mechanization became the standard in farming and the needs of farmers changed, barn design and materials adapted. Some of the biggest changes came following World War II when many old-fashioned barns were replaced with steel structures. The benefits of steel frame houses had been discovered with the Quonset huts that were commonly used during the war, and these benefits translated directly to farming.

Steel Barns

Steel structures provided a number of advantages, most notably the increased strength and durability they provided over wooden barns. Steel frame houses and steel frame barns could also be pre-built and mass-produced, and these types structures had become the standard in American agriculture by the 1960s.

Surprising Resurgence

Although the old-fashioned, hand-built barns of a simpler time are not as common in agriculture today, they have made a resurgence in some unexpected ways. New wooden structures, designed in the fashion of these old American barns are being built and used as sheds, pool houses, stores and even mini homes, and barns will always live on in our culture and art.

Derek Pursley is an influencer marketing pro with brownboxbranding.com who is passionate about building authentic relationships and helping businesses connect with their ideal online audience. He keeps his finger on the pulse of the ever-evolving digital marketing world by writing on the latest marketing advancements​ and focuses on developing customized blogger outreach plans based on industry and competition.