Barns are disappearing from the Connecticut landscape. In some cases, it takes years for a barn to slowly decay. In others, a barn may be standing one day and gone the next, razed to make way for new construction. With each barn that is lost another piece of the state's rich agricultural history disappears.
In a few places, concerned groups have begun to inventory existing barns with the hope of at least documenting the buildings before they are gone. But in many parts of the state the sense of loss is based on anecdotal evidence. We simply don't know where the state's barns are, what they look like, and how they were used. We don't know what we are losing.
To understand barns in Connecticut it is important to understand a fundamental truth about them: barns are working buildings; they are the largest tool on a farm. Like any tool, their shape and size reflects they way in which they are used. Just as the tip of a screwdriver will tell what type of screw it is meant to be used with, a barn's shape, size and attributes reflect the job it was intended to do. As farming practices in Connecticut developed over time the types of barns that the state's farmers built also changed.
Modern scholars call the earliest type of farm buildings still found in the state an "English Barn" or an eave-entry barn. Based on the grain warehouses of the English colonists' homeland, it is a simple building with a rectangular plan, pitched roof, and a door or doors located on one or both of the long sides of the building. In the New World this traditional building type was reorganized, according to architectural historian John Michael Vlach, both for efficiency in use and economy in construction, into a multipurpose building that housed animals, grains and equipment. This multi-purpose use is reflected by the building's construction in three distinct bays - one for each use. This type would dominate barn building in Connecticut through the first quarter of the 19th century.
As it was with so many things, the 19th century was the era of change for barns. Traditional approaches to constructing and using these buildings changed dramatically in this era. Beginning in the 1830s Connecticut's farmers began to embrace a simple but important change in the planning of their barns: many new ones were constructed with the main door on the gable end rather than under the eaves. This change has two practical results. Rather than shedding rain onto the dooryard, this arrangement guided precipitation away from the barn's doors. It also meant that the barn could be enlarged much more easily, simply be adding another bay to the length of the building.
The next decades would see the introduction of a basement under the barn to allow for the easy collection and storage of a winter's worth of manure from the animals sheltered within the building. This innovation, aided by the introduction of windows for light and ventilation, would eventually be joined by the introduction of space to shelter more animals under the main floor of the barn. Additionally, the middle decades of the 19th century saw the first use of ventilators or cupolas, now a hallmark of barns.
The middle of the 19th century also brought a new product to Connecticut, tobacco. This cash crop led to the introduction of new farm buildings for the processing of the crop, most notably the ventilated tobacco barn or shed.
Driving many of the innovations of the middle of the 19th century was the growth of publications aimed at making farmers more productive. (In Connecticut, this move to greater productivity was also spurred by competition from the western regions of the growing country.) While Connecticut had fostered earlier agricultural authors and reformers like 18th century Killingworth resident Jared Eliot, the wave of agricultural periodicals that began in the 1820s had a much greater impact on the built environment.
One of the changes to the landscape that grew out of the agricultural literature was the introduction in the century's middle decades of connected barns. These structures tied all of the functions of a farmstead - home, hearth, workplace and barn - into a series of linked buildings. This is the "big house, little house, back house, barn" of nursery rhymes.
The way in which barns were constructed also began to change in this era, with a move towards more standardized practices in timberframing. This standardized approach would ultimately give way to the balloon framed buildings and the mail order barns of the early 20th century.
The last half of the 19th century also saw the introduction of Federal funding to support agricultural colleges, thanks to the Morrill Act of 1862. In Connecticut, this money first went to Yale before being settled upon the relatively new Storrs Agricultural College in 1893. While this funding bolstered the scientific approach to farming it came as farming in Connecticut was waning.
Another change began occurring towards the end of the century. While many farmers were striving for efficiency to compete with farms in the middle of the country, a new type of farmstead appeared in Connecticut: the gentleman's farm. While fancy barns had been a hallmark of economic success since early in the history of the state, these barns were something new. Men who had made fortunes in areas unrelated to farming began to acquire farms as symbols of their wealth. The barns on these properties were frequently designed by famous architects and were part of giant complexes that combined the luxury of a weekend retreat with the grit of a working farm. Of course, the grit was kept out of sight and the farms were as likely to produce prize animals as saleable crops.
By the end of the 19th century Connecticut's farm population was decreasing. The land had been worked hard for more than two centuries and modern transportation made it harder and harder to compete with the farms of the Midwest. The state would enjoy a slight agricultural renaissance as the abandoned farms that had been traditionally Yankee would be resettled by immigrants from Eastern Europe but even this rebirth would not last long. These resettled farm families would continue striving to make Connecticut's farms into workable propositions. Not only did they put in the long hours of their predecessors, but they undertook new approaches to finding economic success as well. They made chicken raising into big business. They banded together in to cooperative organizations to take advantage of the increased buying and bargaining powers. And they began some of the state's first agri-tourism, taking in summer guests to their farms.
Although many family farms would continue to operate as suppliers for local population centers - providing city dwellers with eggs, milk and some vegetables - the middle of the twentieth century heralded the decline of Connecticut's farms. Changes in the way American's ate, increasing property values, and the growth of giant agribusinesses meant that Connecticut's farmers had a difficult time making a living.
As farms went out of business, many of their barns became unused. Since the buildings were no longer needed, they were no longer maintained. The result was demolition by neglect. Another threat to the farms and barns of the state also appeared in the second half of the 20th century - development. Since the farms could no longer generate enough income through their produce, a new way of getting money out of the land (often a farm family's largest asset) was sought. The result was the process, which continues today, of turning farmland into developments that have no place for a barn.
While the story seems dismal there are a few bright spots. A small number of Connecticut farms continue to exist, some have even built new barns in the recent past. Some barns are being preserved through adaptive re-use. And with renewed awareness for the important place of barns in Connecticut's past, further progress may be made in preserving this physical reminder of our agricultural heritage.
Narrative by James Sexton