Barn raising

From Academic Kids

The term "barn raising" describes the construction of barns since the 18th and 19th centuries in rural North America (U.S. and Canada). In the past, a barn was often the first, largest, and most costly structure built by a family who settled in a new area. Barns were essential structures for storage of hay and keeping of horses and cattle, which in those days were an inseparable part of farming. The tradition of "barn raising" continues, more or less unchanged, in some Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities, particularly in Ohio and some rural parts of Canada.


The event

Missing image
Barn raising, DeKalb County, Indiana, USA, about 1900.

A barn raising is a one- or two-day event during which a community comes together to assemble a barn for one of its households. A certain amount of preparation is done beforehand. Lumber and hardware are laid in, plans are made, ground is cleared, and tradesmen are hired.

Materials are purchased or traded for by the family who will own the barn once it is complete.

Generally, participation is mandatory for community members. These participants are not paid. All able-bodied members of the community are expected to attend. Failure to attend a barn raising without the best of reasons leads to censure within the community. Some specialists brought in from other communities for direction or joinery may be paid, however.

There is an organisational structure. One person, who is often paid, is in charge of the barn raising. Older people who have participated in many barn raisings are crew chiefs. On the whole, the affair is well organized. At most barn raisings, the community has raised barns before and is able to approach the task with experience both in the individual tasks and the necessary organization. Young people participating meaningfully for the first time have watched many barn raisings and know what is expected of them.

Only certain specialists are permitted to work on the more critical jobs, such as the joinery and dowling of the beams. (Post and beam construction is the traditional method of construction in barn raisings.) There is competition for these jobs, and they are sought after. There are gender roles. Women provide water and food. Men do the work. Children watch; boys fetch parts and tools.

Social framework

In earlier American rural life, communities raised barns because many hands were required. In areas that were sparsely settled or on the edge of the frontier, it was not possible to hire carpenters or other tradesmen to build a barn. The harsher winters gave more urgency to the matter of barn construction than was present in the relatively milder climate in Europe. Similar conditions have given rise to alike institutions, such as the Finnish one of 'talkoot'.

Barn raisings occurred in a social framework with a good deal of interdependence. Members of rural communities often shared family bonds going back generations. They traded with each other, buying and selling land, labor, seed, cattle, and the like. They worshiped together. They celebrated together, because cities were too far away to visit with any frequency on horseback. Despite traditions of independence, self-sufficiency, and refusal to incur a debt to another, barn raisings with the free labor in return for a nebulous future commitment were necessary.

Contrast with church construction

Churches were considered as important to communities of the 18th and 19th centuries as were barns. In like fashion, they were often constructed using unpaid community labor. There were important differences. Churches were not constructed with the same degree of urgency, and were most often built of native stone -- a more durable material than the wood of which barns were made, and more time consuming to lay. Barns, once completed, belonged to an individual family, while churches belonged to the community.

End of an era

Barn raising as a method of providing construction labor had become rare by the close of the 19th century. By that time, most frontier communities already had barns and those that did not were constructing them using hired labor. Mennonite and Amish communities carried on the tradition, however, and continue to do so to this day.

Group construction by volunteers enjoyed something of a resurgence during the 1970s, when houses, sheds, and barn-shaped structures were constructed for all manner of purposes except, of course, the keeping of livestock for a profit. Echoes of the tradition can still be found in other community building projects, such as those carried out by Habitat for Humanity.

Barn raising in fiction

For scenes of barn raising see the movies Witness (1985) or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Both these accounts are heavily romanticized. There is also Robert Heinlein's book The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

Barn raising as a metaphor for online communities

See MeatBall:BarnRaising


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