Along with clean water and air and vacant land, we are losing another of our wonderful commodities - our barns.
Early in Pittsford's history, where farming was the way of life, almost every house had a barn of some size or other. Barns, sometimes were completed more rapidly, and with more space and care, than the home in which the early family would live. After all those buildings had to house the animals and tools that would allow the farmer to support his family.
Here in western New York, rich soil supported the "breadbasket of the nation" in the 1830's and 40's. As the wheat fields expanded, the barns evolved from small log buildings to large structures of logs, wood, concrete, and stone in just over 100 years. Barns of red, white, yellow, grey and natural weathering still stand as quiet giants marking a productive land. They may be English style or gambrel-roofed, or Wells-Truss, but they all contributed to the rich heritage of agriculture in this part of the Genesee Country.
Many barns were built on the side of a hill. This allowed access to the main floor of the barn as well as to the lower level. Often cow barns were constructed in this way with the stanchions and the pens for cattle and livestock on the level where the animals could just walk in. The grain, wagons, and equipment could be stored above with access from the "hill" side of the barn. The wonderful book, Barns of the Genesee Country by Daniel Fink has an advertisement for a side hill barn. It reads: "The barn is designed to be built on the side of a hill which will allow of excavation sufficient to form the basement floor, which contains five stalls for horses and six for cattle with a feeding passage between, into which is thrown the hay and oats through a trap door in the floor above. From this passage the manger on either side may be filled very handily and with much less trouble and less risk of being kicked, than when a person has to come up behind the animals to get at their heads."
English barns were the most popular in the early century. They were gable roofed, shingle sided with boards not being tight together because it was commonly known that fresh air and ventilation was good for curing hay and the health of animals. Gambrel roofed barns became the dominant barn shape in the nineteenth century. Depending on the roof angles, this style could offer 50% more storage capacity than the gable roof.
Pittsford has two or three of the Wells-Truss barns and they present a magnificent structure. Not much different appearing on the exterior, the interior is awe-inspiring. The features included the absence of all cross beams, which allowed the load to be run into the barn as soon as it cleared from the wagon. It saved the farmer a great deal of time, but the amazing part is that the beams resemble the arches of a cathedral being laminated and bent.
Hopefully, Historic Pittsford will have a program that will allow members to observe the interior of this style of barn. And we hope, also, to have a poster reminding you of these wonderful remainders of our past.
When a barn no longer has an active farm to serve, it may become too expensive for an owner to maintain. The roof may be allowed to deteriorate, the siding boards may blow off letting in the natural elements and cause rotting and the structure slowly settles. I am sure you have all seen those sad buildings along your sojourns into the countryside.
So, perhaps, the next time you are in the car driving along country roads, or even the Thruway, you will look at the barns and outbuildings a bit differently and consider the style and the reason behind that structure and wonder if it, too, will meet its demise in this decade or the next.