Dairy farming was a growing livelihood in the mid-1800s and a well-built, efficient barn was essential. Traditional square and rectangular-shaped barns were common, but round and octagonal designs started popping up in the Midwest. By the time the trend reached the Northeast Kingdom, one local carpenter was the go-to builder, East Barnet resident Fred “Silo” Quimby.
Among the barns Quimby built is one still-standing off Route 5 in Barnet. Another of his round barns was moved in the 1980s to the Shelburne Museum, where it is preserved as an impressive entrance to the museum’s other buildings and exhibits.
The concept of round barn construction began in 1793 when George Washington designed and built a 16-sided threshing barn at his Dogue Run Farm in Fairfax County, Va. In 1826, Elders William Deming and Daniel Goodrich of Hancock Shaker Village, Mass., utilized the radical new design to build a round dairy barn, the first in North America. Hancock Shaker Village was established in 1791, closed in 1960, and is now operated as a museum.
The Shaker barn was constructed of stone walls, nearly a yard wide, with interior mortise and tenon construction. It was nearly 90 feet in diameter and accommodated 52 cows. The center supports created a ventilating column that ended in a louvered cupola in the center of the structure. It utilized the “bank barn” concept (built into sloped ground) to accommodate a high drive to the second level. The circular second floor was 15 feet wide allowing two hay wagons to pass each other and empty their loads into the center mow. It was partially destroyed by fire in 1870 but later restored.
The United Society of Shakers, a religious group formed in 18th century England, was well known for innovation that emphasized efficiency and economy. The circular design offered greater volume-to-surface ratio and studies by the Kansas State Board of Agriculture estimated a 34 to 58 percent savings in building costs compared to a square or rectangular barn. The open floorplan gave farmers space to work without having to maneuver around support posts. The interior layout allowed farmers to work in a continuous direction and feed was stored in the center of the barn, making it easy to distribute to the feed trough, sometimes referred to as a manger. The stalls were wedge-shaped to accommodate the natural shape of cattle. The round design offered better opportunities for lighting and ventilation, with windows surrounding the structure in the stable area. These buildings ranged from 60 to 90 feet in diameter and could accommodate up to 100 dairy cows.
Despite its innovative design, the Hancock Shaker Village barn remained an anomaly for decades. Round barn construction in the United States can be divided into two overlapping eras: the octagonal era spanned from 1850—1900; and the true circular era that spanned from 1889 to 1936. Round barns were slow to catch on as farmers were committed to traditional barn design. But once the practical, cost-saving aspects of the round design were demonstrated, more farmers adopted the concept.
Orson Squire Fowler, of Fishkill, N.Y., began a campaign in the 1850s to inform people of the virtues of octagonal buildings. Fowler’s main thrust was for housing, but he felt the beauty and versatility of the form would transcend every aspect of construction. In his book, “The Octagon House, A Home For All,” Fowler idealized the circle as nature’s perfection and the octagon approached the perfection of the circle in practicality.
In 1874, Elliot W. Stewart, a lecturer at Cornell University and editor of the Livestock Journal, suffered the loss of four rectangular barns by fire. He decided to replace all four with one octagonal structure. He then began extolling the virtues and advantages of the design in articles he published. By 1936, 219 round and octagonal barns had been built in the state.
The transition from octagonal to round barns was based on key innovations that made that form of construction practical. Prior to the 1830s, virtually all wood frame buildings in the U.S. were built with post and beam construction. In the 1830s, balloon frame construction was invented in Chicago whereby carpenters were able to manipulate pre-cut, light-weight, flexible pieces of lumber into new shapes with the same durability and stability of post and beam. The invention of the high-speed circular saw and wire cut nail provided an expedient and inexpensive means of framing. Another key engineering design was the self-supported roof that allowed interior spaces on all levels to be virtually free of support posts. The post-free interior of the round barn provided more area for animals, storage and equipment.
These structures were ultimately built throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe until about 1936 when their popularity declined as rural electrification and advances in machinery diminished the labor-saving design.
Vermont farmers were introduced to round barns as their popularity began to decline in the mid-west. They varied in size and appearance, but certain characteristics were common. Some were located to take advantage of natural topography and were built as bank barns with upper and lower level entries on grade. Others were free standing with upper-level entries reached by large earthen ramps or a high drive, with ground level entries at their base. A circular silo in the middle of the barn often extended all the way to the roof topped by a cupola. The silo in the center provided support for a cone-shaped roof, although some were built with other roof styles. On the upper level, the floor extended from the silo to the barn’s exterior walls, providing a space for hay and equipment storage. On the next level down, there was a feed alley wide enough for the farmer to move silage from the silo or hay from the drop chutes of the upper level. There was a walkway behind the cows which encircled the barn providing the farmer with space to conduct the milking operation. There were windows above the walkway on the exterior wall of the barn to provide natural light.
The Moore Farm
In 1898, James Moore’s traditional, rectangular, bank barn burned in East Barnet and needed to be replaced. Fellow East Barnet resident Fred Quimby, with the help of John Galbraith, had developed a reputation for building circular silos and Fred had become known to locals as “Silo” Quimby. Moore was influenced by information in agricultural publications and through the local Grange, which touted the economy and efficiency of the circular design. He hired Quimby for the job. Construction lasted about a year and the structure still stands along Route 5, near the Joe’s Brook Road intersection, on the bank of the Passumpsic River.
Unlike the large, multi-purpose round barns built in the mid-west, Moore’s barn was small, only 50 feet in diameter and accommodated a herd of only 20 cows. In 1899, a herd this size was large for one man to milk by hand twice a day.
James and Fanny Moore had 10 children. Barbara Moore Dunbar, a granddaughter who lives in West Barnet, has rich memories of spending time on the farm with her grandparents as well as with her uncle Russell and his wife Mable.
Barbara recalls, “jumping in the hayloft, although Grampie never allowed us to run in the mangers in front of the cattle and if we were in the stable when the cattle were being milked we knew there could be no loud voices and that we were not to run and jump behind the cows.”
During summer, “we all loved to swim in Joe’s Brook,” she said.
The Moore farm was a gathering place for the entire family for many years. “Family members would gather to assist with the spring planting, haying in the summer and the fall harvesting of crops,” Barbara said. “There were many family reunions held at the farm during the summer and the family would gather there to celebrate the holidays, as well as birthdays, anniversaries and other special family celebrations.”
In the early 1940s, Russell and Mable Moore took over the farm and labor-saving innovations were introduced. Electricity allowed milking machines and a refrigerated cooling tank for milk cans to be installed. Draft horses and horse-drawn equipment were gradually replaced by a tractor and modern machinery. Russell maintained the small herd of registered Jersey cattle until his retirement in the mid-1960s. New state laws requiring bulk tanks, basement stables and manure pits were being passed and he decided the capital investment required was not a reasonable option.
At that point, the first round barn built in Vermont ceased to be used as a dairy barn, marking the end of an important piece of history for the Moore family and for agriculture in the state. Russell Moore sold the farm in 1975 to his nephew, David Willis. David and his wife, Sara Beth, and their children, Steven and Kristal, were the sixth and seventh generations to live on the farm until they sold the property in the fall of 2008.
When first completed, the Moore barn captured the interest of local farmers. It became a demonstration model for Fred Quimby, who advertised that he built it for less than $2,000. This attracted the attention of area farmers including Hazen Hyde, leading him to contract with Quimby in 1901 to build a round barn at his Mountain View Farm in East Passumpsic.
The flying barn
Hyde chose to build a much larger barn than Moore’s, approximately 80 feet in diameter. Quimby and Galbraith constructed the barn from timber harvested on the property. For the next 49 years, the property changed ownership several times. George Lamothe bought the farm around 1950 and began a dairy operation with 12 cows and expanded the herd as time went on. In 1962, the Lamothes moved down the road to a location west of the Hazen Hyde round barn, where they built new farm buildings.
Mountain View Farm was sold to William and Donna Marshall of Fitchburg, Mass. The Marshalls hoped to renovate the barn into a school. After careful consideration, the project was deemed too complex and costly. About 20 years later, the Marshalls felt overwhelmed by the barn’s maintenance. Recognizing the importance of preserving Hazen Hyde’s barn, the Marshalls contacted Shelburne Museum and asked if they had any interest in moving the barn to the museum. Museum Director Benjamin Mason and the board of trustees were all captivated by the possibility.
Following a study by engineers and architects, it was determined that moving the barn would be possible, but an expensive $1.7 million-dollar project. From 1985 to 1986 the barn was deconstructed in pieces. As this progressed, museum officials decided to move the silo intact to preserve its architectural integrity. Bernice Quimby, a granddaughter of the barn’s builder, was working at Pratt & Whitney, an aerospace manufacturer in East Hartford, Conn. Bernice collaborated with museum officials to locate a helicopter powerful enough to transport the 9,000-pound silo over 60 miles from East Passumpsic to Shelburne. United Technologies, the parent company of Pratt & Whitney, and Sikorsky, a sister company that manufactures helicopters, paid the $25,000-dollar cost to move the silo. On March 11, 1986, the day of the move, weather conditions were challenging. High winds broke four of the 12 cables from which the silo was suspended. As the helicopter passed over Mount Mansfield it hung at a precarious 45-degree angle. Adults and school children waited patiently outside, along the flight path, to see the silo as it passed over them. Despite concerns it would either fall and splinter into pieces or damage the reconstructed barn, the airborne silo was successfully lowered into place.
Bernice Quimby was at the museum to witness the arrival of the silo. “I feel so proud and honored,” she said that day as she watched. “I know if my grandfather were here today, he would be proud too, although he wouldn’t say much. He was a reserved Vermonter.”
Hyde’s round barn now provides a dramatic entry point to Shelburne Museum. The former hayloft serves as a beautiful gallery, for artifacts from museum collections, providing visitors with an overview of what they are about to enjoy throughout the museum. On the lower level, formerly the cattle stable area, there is a small theater that plays a movie documenting the moving of the barn.
West View Farm
Quimby’s barn building reached into the town of Waterford. West View Farm owner Winfield Hastings purchased the property in 1877, which had been in the family since 1807. He expanded the farm from 175 to approximately 400 acres by 1900, thus requiring the building of a new barn to increase productivity. In 1903, after being persuaded by his son, Elbridge, that a round barn would serve multiple functions, Winfield contacted Fred Quimby.
Winfield also chose to contract with well-known St. Johnsbury architect Lambert Packard to design his barn. Packard was the Fairbanks Company architect and designed many buildings in the St. Johnsbury area.
An unusual feature of the Hastings’ barn is an enclosed cattle ramp attached to the side of the barn allowing cattle to move up to the stable on the second level. The Hastings barn is the only known round barn that has no posts supporting it at ground level. The stone foundation is nine feet high and up to five feet thick. Its roof, instead of following the conical pattern, was built in 16 sections with the eaves forming a sixteen-sided polygon. Packard’s concern with detail is evident as the barn is finished to a much higher degree than other round barns in the area. The building of the new barn supported Winfield Hasting’s desire to continue a diversified approach to farming and to substantially increase productivity. In 1860 the farm’s Jersey herd had produced 2,000 pounds of butter and by 1904, after the barn was built, 10,400 pounds of butter were being produced. Winfield was delighted to tell people he could feed his herd of cattle in 15 minutes, which may have been an exaggeration. During the year following the building of the barn, about 2,000 people visited, promoting further interest in round barn design.
The mystery barn
Caledonia County’s fourth round dairy barn was built on East Hill in Peacham, but little is known of its history. Its design closely resembled the Moore and Hyde barns. It was large, possibly 80 feet in diameter. All that remains today is its stone foundation, the rest was consumed by fire in 1938.
Danville resident Lois White recalls being told by a friend, Rolland Aiken, that in the summer of 1938, “he was playing outside on his family farm, located near the crest of Harvey Mountain when he looked across the valley toward East Hill and he saw the round barn explode.”
Wilber Blodgett owned the farm at the time of the fire. Lois recalled that her father, Claude Field, and other local farmers she knew always feared that spontaneous combustion could ignite a fire in hay.
“If the hay was damp at all when it was put into the barn it would begin to heat up,” said Lois. “If my dad stuck his arm in the hay and felt it heating up he would sprinkle salt on it to cool it down.” Blodgett farmed the land until 1939 when he sold to Hamilton Slaight, who used it as a summer residence.
A family business
There were two additional round barns in Caledonia County. They were not dairy barns but rather designed as hay dryers. They were circular in shape and topped by a cupola. One of these barns was located in East Passumpsic on a farm owned by Napoleon and Mary Lamothe. It could be seen across the Passumpsic River when driving south of Passumpsic on Route 5. The barn was torn down in 1959 after the town purchased the farm for its sand and gravel deposits.
In 1937, Douglas and Sybil Kitchel purchased Kilfasset Farm, a historic Scottish farmstead in Passumpsic, from Benjamin and Phoebe Gadley. Doug intended to establish a large dairy farm. The barn on the property was old and dilapidated. He hired George Quimby, Fred’s son, to build a modern dairy barn that included a round hay dryer.
Round barn construction, it seemed, was a family business.
During Vermont’s round barn era about 25 round dairy barns were built. Less than half of that number have survived fires, heavy snow loads and neglect. By today’s standards of dairy farming, the round barn concept is no longer practical. The advance of technology relegated the design to a fascinating, unconventional innovation that outlived its time. The round barns that remain on Vermont’s landscape continue to capture the attention and imagination of those who see them.