Teach PA History
It's Just a Barn
Background Information for Teachers

The "Pennsylvania Barn" is a familiar symbol of rural Pennsylvania and, in many ways, an agricultural "gift" from the Commonwealth to the nation. This barn is a well-designed, multipurpose storage facility and workspace, which for generations was at the heart of the farm. Although it had antecedents that reached back to the Swiss Pratigau region from which many Pennsylvania German immigrants hailed, the Pennsylvania Barn is a uniquely home-grown creation, and a marvel of functional engineering. The most prominent among its distinguishing features is the projecting "forebay," or "overshoot," which projects over the lower-level doors. The barn was always placed with one long side built into a bank so that wagons on the bankside could enter the upper floors laden with hay, straw, or grain. The upper story was divided into mows (places where hay and grain are stored), threshing floors, and sometimes a granary. From there, workers taking advantage of gravity-power could toss feed, hay, and straw down through holes to stables on the lower floor where cattle, horses, and sheep could stay warm. To permit the circulation of fresh air and confine animal manure for efficient collection, the forebay side usually faced south and opened onto a walled yard. (Related information about Pennsylvania Barns can be found on the markerFisher House marker page.)
The development of the Pennsylvania Barn by ethnic Germans within the Great Valley and Triassic Lowland section of the Piedmont was an offshoot of an earlier barn that was not well adapted for the mixed grain and livestock production becoming prevalent in colonial times. These physiographic sections became the "Pennsylvania Barn core region." In geographic terms this is known as the "cultural hearth" from which the Pennsylvania Barn and farming practices spread south and west across the state and into other states. This action, "diffusion," took the advantages of the Pennsylvania Barn and provided farmers with a versatile, multi-purpose structure that still dots Pennsylvania and surrounding regions today.
Although the Pennsylvania Barn was efficient, an agricultural reformer, Frederick Watts, had plans for a more efficient barn and even outlined the most appropriate locations for buildings on a farm. He put his ideas in action in 1857 by developing a model farm on a 116-acre tract near Carlisle. There he built a house and large multi-functional barn, both designed for maximum efficiency. His actions did not upset the continuing diffusion of the Pennsylvania Barn as can be seen by the large numbers of Pennsylvania Barns built from 1860 through 1900 in Cumberland County, where Watts resided and where he located his experimental farm. (Related information about Frederick Watts can be found in the markerFrederick Watts "Behind the Marker" story.) The loss of Watts" experimental farm to commercial development is an example of the pressures among historic preservation, land conservation, and economic development.
This lesson will look at why the Pennsylvania Barn is distinctive; its diffusion beyond Pennsylvania, and the work of agricultural reformer, Frederick Watts, who designed improvements to the barn and created an experimental farm to advance agricultural practices in the 19th century. The loss of that historic experimental farm to commercial development provides an extension activity to consider how community planning must consider the needs for historic preservation, land conservation, open space preservation, and economic development.

Web Sites

Historical Census Browser

University of Virginia Library has presents data on the population and economy of U.S. states and counties from 1790 to 1960 including a section on agriculture.

The Pennsylvania Rural History Project

This Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission site includes pictures of barns, links to other agricultural sites and can provide in-depth data on sites currently on the National Register of Historic Places.

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