Community Agriculture Alliance: All about barns |

Community Agriculture Alliance: All about barns

Arianthé C. Stettner/For the Steamboat Today

Ever wondered how many historic barns there are in Routt County? Hundreds! The results of an optional survey by the USDA in 2007 reported 149 pre-1960 barns owned by agricultural operators in the county.

Years earlier, Historic Routt County conducted historic property inventories of nearly 100 working ranches. Not only did every ranch have a barn, but nearly half of the ranches studied had multiple barns more than 50 years old. This often resulted when an owner bought an adjoining parcel that already had a barn, or the owners changed their agricultural operations and needed an additional barn. They simply built one or moved an existing barn to where it was needed.

Agricultural buildings have been recycled in Routt County for a long time. Just as agricultural operations and building techniques have evolved, so have barns.

The barns built today are not the same those built in the 1880s. They have different functions, use different materials and employ different construction techniques.

Pioneers needed to raise crops and dairy products for their own consumption because there were few other options. Early settlers began ranching, raising livestock and hay, and farming cool weather crops for market. Necessary for all these operations was a place to shelter the animals, supplies and other materials.

A barn often was the first building constructed on a homestead. The family slept in the hayloft and the animals were sheltered in the stalls below until there were enough resources to build a cabin.

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The barn usually was the largest building on an agricultural property. Most early Routt County barns had either a simple gable or gambrel roof and faced the east or south for maximum light and protection from the weather. The long north side had few windows.

Barns were made of locally available materials, such as logs and rocks from the property, and reflected the traditions and skills (if any) of the builders. Large stones placed at the corners and pressure points of the barns served as foundations.

With the arrival of sawmills, barn construction changed. Balloon framing and wooden siding replaced log construction. Locally made shake roofs were typical of early barns but eventually were replaced when metal roofing became available. Metal roofs shed snow and were long lasting and easy to maintain.

One example of how changes in agriculture have influenced barns is in hay production and storage. The haylofts of early barns were built to hold the tons of loose hay needed to feed livestock during the winter. Haylofts of log barns were not chinked to allow for ventilation of the dry hay and to prevent combustion.

Later, the wide spacing of siding in the gables of framed barns served the same purpose. The advent of baled hay, however, had a huge impact on barns. Haylofts of pioneer barns were not built to support the compact and heavy rectangular bales of hay, usually 75 to 100 pounds each.

Easily overloaded, many historic barns collapsed. Hay storage needs changed further with the huge 900 pound round bales now prevalent. Today, there are new ways of storing hay with adequate ventilation, whether in rectangular or round bales: tall open pole sheds with metal roofs or blue plastic tarps. No more barns.

If you are interested in learning more about barns, Historic Routt County is presenting architect Robert C. McHugh’s fascinating talk, “All About Barns.”

McHugh will trace the development of barn framing systems from the 1700s to the 1930s, and the builders who constructed them. Join us at 7 p.m. April 10 at the Chief Theater in downtown Steamboat Springs. This fundraiser for Historic Routt County is sponsored by Twin Enviro Services. Tickets are $25 and are available at or at the door. For more information, visit or call 970-875-1305.

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