Barn Raising

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Barns throughout nineteenth-century America grew in size, as well as importance for the farm, and a common tradition to meet the challenge of building the barn was to turn the task of construction into a community event. The vernacular term "raising" referred to the task of lifting into place erect "bents" or large vertical frames that formed the skeleton of the barn and connecting them with cross-girts (horizontal framing members connecting end posts below the roof plate). The task of raising, the visually exciting highlight of barn building, required many men to work cooperatively and use ropes and poles (or "pikes") to erect the heavy wooden bents. The expectation arose that the community would create a festive family atmosphere around this laborious event. The barn raisings featured large communal dinners, sometimes liquor and cider, and play opportunities for children. Sources for this kind of festival can be found in medieval England and continental Europe, but evidence suggests it is associated with pre-industrial America because of the increased frequency of barn building on individual farms. Although the image of the rugged, independent pioneer building his home by himself was common in American popular iconography, the visual culture of the barn emphasized the spirit of community offering mutual aid and generosity in expanding America.

Despite the communal image, a hierarchy in organizing the raising was usually evident. A master carpenter or foreman was hired to direct the construction and supervise the crew. The typical procedure was to connect tie beams (horizontal pieces of wood between the feet of a pair of rafters in a roof structure) to end posts below the roof plate. In addition to building the bents on the ground before they were lifted into place, the crew constructed temporary scaffolding made from boards around the site. The men laid the boards across the horizontal beams to provide platforms from which they could work. In Pennsylvania, an alternative to raising completely assembled H-bents was to join the tie beam over the roof plate and end post. Workers laid long planks against the uppermost girts at the rear of the frame to serve as ramps or skids on which upper-frame members could be slid to their proper height. They rotated the tie beams after moving them up the skids and secured the barn frame. They then erected the roof framework and rafters and completed the barn with roofing and siding. By most accounts, the raising process usually took a day. Women prepared an abundance of food for the event, and often served it in a large communal dinner. It was common to have a dance at the house after the raising, and many accounts recall the prevalence of drunkenness at these parties.

The growth of agribusiness, introduction of mechanical devices for raising bents, use of lighter presawn timbers, and professionalization of farm construction in the twentieth century resulted in the decline of barn raisings as festive communal events. However, among agrarian groups holding on to communal values, such as the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, barn raisings continued and, indeed, became tourist attractions for modern viewers seeking a nostalgic reminder of pre-industrial communal ways of life. In popular culture, they also became associated with the Amish because of the inclusion in the movie Witness of the barn-raising scene as a significant symbol of wholesome communal values. Ethnographies of Amish societies showed that the barn was important not only because of its function for farming activity, but also as space for religious services (the Amish do not have churches; instead, they use members' barns). The raising became part of a system of insurance. After a fire, the community pitched in by restoring the barn or raising a new one. Sociologist Don Kraybill calls the barn raising the most dramatic example of "social capital" among the Amish, which includes face-to-face relationships, extended family, and long-standing traditions and rituals that support them. Continuing features of a communal meal, visual excitement for spectators, and festive atmosphere, the Amish barn raising is a productive integration of pleasure and labor serving the needs, and underscoring the importance, of the community.

See also: Colonial-Era Leisure and Recreation; Early National Leisure and Recreation; Frolics


Ensminger, Robert F. The Pennsylvania Barn: Its Origin, Evolution, and Distribution in North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Glassie, Henry. "The Variation of Concepts Within Tradition: Barn Building in Otsego County, New York." Geoscience and Man 5 (1974): 177–235.

Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963.

Kraybill, Don, The Riddle of Amish Culture, Revised Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Walbert, David. Garden Spot: Lancaster County, the Old Order Amish, and the Selling of Rural America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Simon J. Bronner