Connect the Dots: 30X40-Style Barns – The Oldest in the Vermont Landscape

Published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Other Paper on 5/19/22.

30X40 style barn with a shed attached on the left

As I walked into the rebuilt 1790s barn, I paced it off and found it was 30’ by 40’, just as I expected. Barns that age are usually English style barns, also called “30x40s” because of their standard size. They were often the first barns built on early subsistence farms here, and had been built in England since the 1600s. I was preparing a field trip about this farm’s evolution for some UVM graduate students, and I decided I’d use this barn as a key piece in describing Vermont’s transition from mostly forests to mostly farms.

The old barn had recently blown down in a wind storm and had been rebuilt using some of the original pieces by Eliot Lothrop’s restoration company Building Heritage. I wasn’t surprised that the pieces that survived were the wooden posts and beams. The internal frame was hefty, with some of the timbers 10-11” square in cross-section. Most were beech, with a little ash and oak. Because the timbers were hand hewn, the original trees had almost certainly been rooted within a stone’s throw of this spot. This farm lot had been completely forested when the settlers arrived, and it seems fitting that most of the barn’s timbers were from the most common tree: beech was 40% of this pre-settlement forest.

The transition from tree trunks into framing timbers can be read in the marks on the wood. After the standing trees were felled, shaping was done with an ax in two steps. The first marks were made across the grain, scoring the tree trunk to the proper depth for the finished timber. The next marks were made along the grain where the ax hewed out the wood between the scored marks, creating the flat face. Finally, the mortise and tenon joints were shaped with hand tools, then pinned with wooden pegs. 

Hand hewn post

The 30×40 barn was usually the farms’ largest building, providing shelter for animals and harvested crops. Their typical layout was in three sections or bays that served the farm’s multiple needs. 

The barn’s main doors opened onto the center bay which was the threshing floor, a feature later Vermont barns don’t have. Early farmers cleared a few acres around their house and barn to grow grain crops, especially wheat and oats, for themselves and their animals. In the fall, they were harvested, dried in the field, then brought into the barn to be threshed and/or stored. For threshing, the farmers spread the grain stalks on the wooden floor and hit them repeatedly with handheld flails, separating the seeds from the stems and husks. Then, by tossing the mixed grain and chaff into the cross drafts from doors on either side of the barn, they separated the heavier grain from the lighter husks. Sometimes, farmers stood a board across the bottom of the doorway to hold in the grain being threshed – giving us the word “threshold.” 

Grain not threshed immediately was stored in the loft over the threshing floor, accessed by a central wooden ladder. Once threshing machines were adopted by the 1830s, threshing floors no longer felt the repeated hits of the flails.

Wooden ladder to the loft over the threshing floor

The barn’s main doors were a little off center, creating a smaller bay on one side and a larger one on the other. The smaller bay was usually for the livestock that could probably be counted on one hand.  The larger bay was for hay storage. Hay was grown in small fields nearby, harvested with hand tools, dried in the field, forked into a wagon, driven into the barn’s center bay, then forked into this large bay for winter animal feed. 

Including the hay and crop fields, a typical 100-acre subsistence farm had cleared about 10 acres by 1815, and most of those acres’ products flowed in and out of the barn with the seasons.

Later in the 1800s as Vermont shifted into commercial farming with more livestock, the 30×40 barns were often adapted. Some were moved onto banks to add a lower floor, were lengthened, or had a newer, larger barn attached to it for housing more animals and winter feed. As dairy herds increased into the 20th and 21st centuries, the new dairy barns built for many hundreds of cows dwarfed the original 30x40s.

But many of the 30×40 barns remain on our landscape as witnesses to an ever-evolving landscape. In our area, most of the 30x40s built before 1830 were framed with beech from the pre-settlement forest, preserving that wood as much as 230 years later. Like those in the 1790 barn I visited, the wooden beams had gone from being separate, tall trees anchoring the forest to becoming shaped timbers pegged together at many different angles, working as one unit to anchor the early farms.

Copyright 2022 Jane Dorney

My thanks to Eliot Lothrop of Building Heritage for sharing information from his rebuilding of 30X40 barns.