Connect the Dots: The Barn Across the Road From the House

Published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in the Shelburne News and The Citizen, January 26, 2023

Bank barn foundation near a backcountry campsite in Little River State Park.

We were walking down a wooded trail in Little River State Park to see some old stonework that a friend had found near her backcountry campsite.  Through the brush ahead, a six-foot-tall stone wall appeared, and as we got nearer we could see that it was a large, three-sided shape.  It had all the features of a nineteenth-century bank barn foundation.  When my friend asked why it was in the woods by itself, I said it probably wasn’t and we should look for the remains of the old farmhouse that had once gone with it.  I suggested we look first on the other side of the trail, which looked like the old road.  As we crossed the road and pushed through the brush there, the stone-lined cellar hole opened up in front of our feet, as I had predicted.

Cellar hole across the road from the barn foundation.

The pattern of building the farmhouse and the barn next to the road but across from each other was very common in western Vermont in the nineteenth century, and many examples remain today.  In eastern Vermont, some farms followed this pattern and other farms connected all their farm buildings together (as in the children’s ditty “big house, little house, back house, barn”).  Each pattern had advantages and disadvantages, and farm families had to weigh their choices before they decided how to build.

Nineteenth-century barn across the road from the nineteenth-century farmhouse.

With connected farm buildings, the farm family could walk from their house through the attached shed (or “back house”) to the barn without ever going outside, no matter the weather.  The biggest benefit came in the winter when the frequent livestock feedings, milkings, and other farm chores could be done with much less exposure to the cold and wind. 

Until well into the twentieth century, though, the farm chores were done by lantern light.  The lanterns had open flames from the candle, oil, or kerosene they used, making them a fire hazard in the barns full of dry hay, straw, and other flammables.  Farmers were careful about where they placed the lanterns, but there was always a risk of one being knocked over and starting a fire.  If the barn caught on fire, it could easily spread to the other attached buildings, including the house.

In western Vermont, most of the farm families decided they’d rather go out to the barn in all weather to lower the risk of fire spreading between buildings.   They usually positioned their barns directly across the road from the house.  This meant they were close by and easy to find in the dark, and the dirt roadway acted as a fire break preventing possible flames from spreading from one building to building. 

The roadbed was also easily traversed when going from the house to the barn, even in winter.  In the earliest years, roadway snow was packed down using a variety of homegrown methods and devices.  In the later nineteenth-century, towns used specially-designed snow rollers on the roadways to make a good surface for the main mode of winter transportation: horse-drawn sleighs.  Farmers crossing the road from their house to the barn in winter would walk relatively easily on the packed snow surface.

Snow roller packing the snow on a rural road (before automobiles were used). From the Berlin Historical Society on the UVM Landscape Change Program website.

This pattern of placing the house and barn across the road from each other was usually possible because many early Vermont farms owned land on both sides of the road.  The earliest farmhouses were built before the roads were laid out and the buildings were usually placed near the middle of their original lot, giving them easier access to their whole parcel.  When the first rural roads were put in, they usually connected farm site to farm site in a neighborhood, thus running through the middle of the farm lots.  Farm families, then, were able to put their farm buildings on both sides of the road and all of them would be on their property.  This is very different from the placement pattern in the Midwestern U.S., where the rural roads were built on the lot lines between farms and the farm buildings would all be have to be on the same side of the road. 

Where the roads became heavily traveled thoroughfares, farmers moved away from this pattern of building their barns across the road from the house so they could avoid crossing a busy road to do barn chores.

I always watch for this pattern when I’m driving on the back roads.  But with most of the old barns no longer housing farm animals, it’s not an everyday sight to see someone crossing between the house and the barn as it would have in years past, especially not with a lantern in hand.

Copyright 2023 Jane Dorney