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Barn Raising in Colonial Times

Of all of the different buildings that were essential to human survival in Colonial America, barns played one of the most significant roles in human life. Since animals and livestock were absolutely critical to survival, making sure they had a safe place to rest and eat was crucial and made barns an integral part of life. Barns were also necessary to store grain, wheat, and other important foodstuffs to keep them protected from the elements. Most of the older barns in early Colonial America were made of wood and nails. European barns were often made of stone. It was not until much later that more modern barns used other materials, like metal. When property owners needed to build a barn, they called upon neighbors and relatives to assist them with getting the barn set up. This process is commonly known as barn-raising.

The concept of barn-raising was first used in England. As settlers began to move to America, the tradition was passed on with them and shared with others. Neighbors would help farmers get the barn’s frame lifted up, often for no pay. In return, fellow neighbors would be willing to do the same for other farmers who needed assistance with their barn’s construction. The tradition of barn-raising is still practiced, although it is much less common today. Many Amish and Mennonite communities continue to regularly participate in barn-raisings. Modern farmers typically erect a barn using modern-day equipment such as cranes and forklifts. Before this machinery existed, people relied on each other to get the task at hand accomplished, but the age-old tradition of barn-raising is still considered to be an important way to help bring communities together. It also stands as a symbol of hard work and a good, strong work ethic.

Before a barn-raising takes place, there are several steps to the process in order for it to be raised properly. The farmer most likely already has plans drawn out showing the shape and size of the barn. Different pieces of lumber are brought to the site where the barn will be built. People must also level and clear the ground to ensure that the barn is sitting on a steady foundation. The timber is cut to the correct lengths and nailed together to form the main frame of the barn. Usually, the frame of the barn is pre-made lying on its side. Once everyone is ready to assist with the barn-raising, ropes are attached to the frame to help pull it upright. People relied on the sheer strength of one another along with work animals like horses or oxen to help pull the barn’s frame upright. Once all four sides and the main roof frame had been erected, the barn was officially “raised.” This was often followed by a celebratory prayer and maybe even a toast or mug of beer. The women would bring along homemade dishes of chicken and various types of pies to feed the workers after the barn was raised. Typically, colonists would rely on their families to help with the finishing touches on the barn, such as adding windows, doors, and the roof.

Not only were barn-raisings a needed event in order to ensure that the farmers had the barns they needed to survive, but they were also important community events. People would attend a barn-raising from all over the area just for an excuse to come and have some fellowship with neighbors. Today, many local organizations and charities perform barn-raisings of their own to help unite the community. Although no one got paid to help with raising these barns, the reward was a sense of community, hard work, pride, and ownership. This very important tradition can teach a valuable lesson to everyone about what it means to help each other as well as how working hard together as a team can reap some wonderful rewards. The barns of yesteryear are slowly fading away, which only adds to the significance of barn-raising and makes this tradition even more important today.

By Alan Bernau Jr

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