Why Did People Build Round Barns?

Why Did People Build Round Barns?

Why Did People Build Round Barns?
Raymond Brinkman barn near Stillwell, Kansas

If you have ventured out on some of the scenic back roads of Kansas, you have probably seen quite a few old barns—simple barns, ornate barns, wood barns, stone barns…and round barns.

Round barns aren’t always round.  Many times they have eight, twelve, or sixteen sides.  One old barn in eastern Kansas had twenty-four sides!  Only a few barns are considered “true circular.”

Why build a round barn?  Many people believed that round barns were efficient in a number of ways:

  • The round barn had a greater volume-to-surface ratio than a rectangular barn.
  • The Kansas State Board of Agriculture estimated a 34% to 58% savings in cost of materials compared to a rectangular barn.
  • The open floor gave farmers space to work without having to dodge the posts supporting the building.
  • Farmers could also work in a continuous direction.
  • Feed was often stored in the center of the barn, making it easy to distribute to the stalls.
  • Stalls were wedge-shaped, which actually fits quite well with the natural shape of cattle.

But efficiency was just one of the reasons some farmers built round barns.  Many people believed that round barns were stronger and could better withstand severe weather.  Others thought that the design stayed warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

Were all of these advantages true, or were they just propaganda concocted by the early promoters of the design?  Many of the reasons for building round barns actually had some basis in mathematical fact, such as the volume-to-surface ratio.  Others were borne out in practice, such as the ability of round barns to stand up in storms and tornadoes while their rectangular neighbors were destroyed.

Often, however, the efficiency of the barn simply depended on its design and construction.  The Fromme-Birney round barn near Mullinville, Kansas, cost several thousand dollars more than a typical barn of its era, and some round barns are decidedly inefficient in maintaining a relatively stable temperature.  Sometimes the architects were a little overambitious and built huge barns that were dark and poorly ventilated, not to mention wastes of space.  Furthermore, there were disadvantages to storing feeds such as silage in the middle of the building because of the toxic fumes.

An estimated 41 round barns were built in Kansas.  Unfortunately, many of these have been lost to storms, fires, and old age.  Over half are still believed to exist, although it is difficult to say because so many are privately owned.  Of the survivors, the Fromme-Birney barn is probably the best known.

 

Helpful Resources

Kansas BarnsKansas Barns and Kansas Barns II
Intrigued?  These books by Martha Knudsen offer detailed sketches of many beautiful barns, round and otherwise.  Read our full review.

Round Barn
More about the Fromme-Birney barn from the City of Mullinville (scroll down).

“The Round Barns of Kansas”
Article by James Shortridge provides interesting history.  Includes facts and photos about each of the 41 round barns of Kansas.