Barn raising is a tradition that continues today in some Old Order Mennonite and Amish communities; especially those in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and some areas of Canada. A barn raising refers to the collective action of a community, in which all members help to build or rebuild a barn. Historically, this tradition was practiced throughout rural North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, during which time a barn was a vital structure for farmers. While barns were vital, they were also costly, and often required more labor than one family could handle. In this case, the community would come together to assist in building their neighbors’ barns. This favor was eventually returned to all members of the community. Barn raising within Amish communities remains today, mostly unchanged from how it was done in the past.
A barn raising requires a lot of preparation and work, usually beginning a few days before the actual raising occurs. The ground needs to be cleared, hardware and lumber laid in, and the proper tradesmen hired. The materials needed for the barn are normally purchased or traded for by the eventual owners of the structure. In most cases, participation in barn raising is mandatory for all members of a community, and helpers are not paid. The failure of an able bodied member of a community to attend a barn raising can cause discourse.
Either one or several people are normally chosen to lead a barn raising project and these leaders have specific skills and prior experience. Crew chiefs usually include older community members who have participated in many barn raisings. Critical jobs, including the dowling and joining of the beams is only done by certain specialists for safety reasons. Men normally construct the barn while women provide food and beverages, older boys help to fetch tools, and younger children watch all the happenings.
Traditionally, barn raisings were done in summer months including June and July, when there was time between the planting and harvest seasons. The timber needed to complete the project was for the most part produced in the winter, during which time logs were brought to a sawmill for preparation. It was a tradition to place a wreath, flag, or bough at the high point of the frame after the last piece of the barn was put in place. This tradition is referred to as “topping out” and often during this time, the master carpenter of the project would make a speech and then toast.
Barn raisings have a rich history in early American rural life. Areas on the edge of the frontier were home to members of communities that often had bonds with each other going back generations. Members of these communities were interdependent on each other; they celebrated together, worshipped together, and traded with each other. This created a self sufficiency within early communities, where barn raisings where a common part of life.
By the end of the 19th century, barn raisings became less frequent, as people turned to using hired labor. The Amish and Mennonite communities, however, continued to carry on the tradition and still do so to this day.
Barn raisings have been depicted in a number of fictional movies. These include Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Kingpin, Witness, Plain Truth, and For Richer or Poorer, among others. To continue reading about barn raisings, their history, and continued practices within the Amish and Mennonite Communities, consult the resources listed below.
- Amish Barn Raising: A Way of Life – An article with an in-depth description of what occurs during a traditional Amish barn raising.
- Amish Barn Raising Video – Watch members of an Amish community build a barn in a time lapse video just under four minutes in length.
- Amish Barn Raising Photo Documentation – A page revealing images that capture a traditional Amish barn raising project.
- Amish Life – A list of helpful resources providing information on various aspects of life within Amish communities.
- The Amish and Mennonites – A study that takes a look into folk culture in Amish and Mennonite communities.
- The Amish: History, Beliefs, Practices – A page exploring many different aspects of Amish culture including practices, beliefs, and history.
- Amish People and Amish Culture – Information on the Amish people and their culture, particularly those living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.