Rochester, Ind., population 6,218, is a capital within a capital within a capital, the holy of holies of a triplet of concentric territories all known as “The Round Barn Capital of the World.”
Indiana boasts more round barns than any other state. About 225 of the structures once dotted the state; just under 100 remain.
Fulton County, of which Rochester is the largest municipality and county seat, originally hosted 17 of those barns, more than any other county in the state. Of those 17, seven are still standing and are recipients of the tender loving care of the Fulton County Historical Society.
Round barns, initially castigated as unaesthetic grotesqueries by a tradition-bound agricultural community, gradually received grudging acceptance as they proved to be cheaper to build, better able to withstand high winds and more efficient and versatile than their rectangular counterparts.
The math is indisputable. Round barns enclose the most cubic feet for the materials used, slashing as much as 58 percent off construction costs.
The contour of the barns saved labor costs as well. With no corners, the interiors were more easily and efficiently swept of grain and waste. Farmers had space to work without dodging supporting posts and could operate in a more streamlined continuous direction.
Livestock were housed in wedge-shaped stalls facing the middle where silage was piled, facilitating the feeding procedure.
Lighting was more consistent inside the barn and sunlight could shine directly into the stables through the open vents higher up on the wall.
The round barn era reached its height from 1880 to 1920, though round barn construction in the United States can be divided into two overlapping periods. Indiana’s construction era bookends those decades, with round barns built from 1874 through 1936.
The first decade saw a proliferation of round barns’ precursors, polygonal structures having from eight to 24 sides.
The earliest recorded many-sided or polygonal barn in the U.S. belonged to George Washington, who built a 16-sided barn in 1792 near Mount Vernon, Va., as a treading mill to thresh grain. The barn lasted 80 years until it decayed beyond repair and was taken down. A replica of the barn was built in 1996.
The first true round barn in the U.S. was built in Massachusetts in 1824 by the Shakers, who allegedly preferred round barns so evil spirits could not hide in the corners. They may have derived their pattern from the Indian’s use of circular tepees and wigwams.
The “true circular era” started circa 1889 and ended when the round barns fell out of favor, victims of the post-World War I agricultural depression and the onset of prefabricated rectangular barns. The emergence of mechanization and abundance of lumber obviated the labor-saving features inherent in the round barn. Further, the structures proved too small to house the increasingly large farm machinery being built.
Though brief, the era of the round barn, innovative for its day, heralded the birth of modern farming.
The most prominent round barn in Fulton County is situated on a knoll in Loyal, the living history village operated by the Fulton County Historical Society four miles north of Rochester.
“The barn was built in 1924 by C.V. Kindig and his two sons,” said Melinda Clinger, director of the nearby historical museum. “It was built for Burt Leedy and was originally located 4 miles north on old U.S. 31.”
The 60-foot diameter barn was constructed of 1-inch lumber soaked in a nearby creek to make it pliable for assembly.
“They started construction in September and finished it before the snow fell,” said Clinger.
In 1989 a tornado “took off the roof and set it over to the side,” she said. “We salvaged 99 percent of the barn and moved it here, a donation to the museum by the Paxton family.”
Further renovations were recently required after a severe storm in August 2015.
The barn is “full of horse-drawn farm equipment” and is open for self-guided tours during the museum’s hours of operation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
The Fulton County Historical Society has dedicated itself to the preservation of the iconic structures, which the society’s president, Shirley Willard, dubbed “cathedrals of the countryside.”
In 1991 Willard established the National Round Barn Center of Information and began collecting all the references to round barns she could find. A list of all the round and polygonal barns in the United States was compiled by members of the Covered Bridge Society and typed, cataloguing 444 of the buildings in the United States and 19 in Canada.
“While many round barns have been lost, several new ones have been built, including a horse training barn near Lafayette,” Willard noted.
For her and many others in north central Indiana, saving round barns is a labor of love. “They’re so beautiful. When you see one, you just say, ‘Oh my goodness.’”
For information, visit www.fultoncountyhistory.org or call (574) 223-4436.