English Barn 2As colonial New England settlers were predominantly English, it should not be surprising that early barns were constructed using standard English design dating back to medieval times. These windowless “English” barns were typically 40 feet wide and 30 feet deep with a gable roof. The door was centrally located on the eaves side of the building. The barn was organized in a three bay system with a central threshing floor and two equal size bays on either side. The barn was generally sited so that the left side of the building faced toward the warmer south or east as this was the bay customarily used to stable livestock. This orientation assisted in keeping the animals warmer in the winter and assured that the manure pile created on that side of the building had the benefit of spring sun to melt it in time for spring planting.

Above the animal stalls a hay loft was constructed of boards sufficient to support the hay but loose enough to permit ventilation of the hay from below. The bay on the other side of the threshing floor was used for the storage of hay, grain and other fodder. This bay was often divided from the threshing floor by a waist-high wall.

Often there were doors located on either end of the threshing floor. This permitted wagons to drive through the barn without the necessity of turning around. Great pains were taken in the construction of the threshing floor to assure that the timbers fit tightly together to prevent the loss of grains during the threshing process which until about 1820 was done by hand. The location of doors on opposite ends of the threshing floor also allowed for cross ventilation to assist in the winnowing of the grain which was tossed into the air to separate the wheat from the chaff. The threshing floor had a high sill to help keep the threshed grain from blowing out of the barn. This sill was the original “threshold” of the building.

English tying joint sketchIn addition to the size and layout of the building, another characteristic of the English barn was timber framing with a complex corner joint, known as the English tying joint. The diagram depicts how this joint tied together the top of the outside wall post, the top plate of the wall, the tying beam between the eaves and the foot of the rafter. Although complicated and difficult to cut, the resulting joint was sound. This method continued to be used in barn construction until about 1840 when a simplified joint became popular.

Although not English barns, several of the Madison tour barns have English tying joints in their timber frame construction.

Gilman barn is square and plumb

The English barn went out of favor after 1830, in part because they were seen as too small, inefficient and old-fashioned. Instead, the most popular 19th century New England barn became the gable roofed barn with the main door located on the gable end instead of in the side wall.

Dancing on the threshing floor

Dancing on the threshing floor by William Sidney Mount 1831 from the book “Dance and American Art” by Sharyn R. Udall.