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Saving Indiana's Last Round Barns

Frank Littleton would not be outdone. An Indianapolis attorney and state lawmaker, Littleton owned a 360-acre farm in the McCordsville area in Hancock County. In 1901, colleague and fellow attorney Wymond Beckett built a round barn on his Dearborn County farm. It measured 100 feet in diameter, making it the largest building of its kind in the state. Two years later, Littleton hired the same builder to erect a round barn 103 feet across and 103 feet tall.

“Just to kind of spite his buddy,” DNR architectural historian Amy Borland said. These two barns are noteworthy not only because of their size but also because they remain upright and in remarkable shape. Only 73 round or polygonal barns are left in Indiana.

Round barns and their architectural predecessor, polygonal barns, have always been rare, even in their heyday. In researching his 1993 book, “A Round Indiana, Round Barns in the Hoosier State,” author John T. Hanou verified the construction of 226 such barns in Indiana between 1874 and 1936.While only a fraction of Hoosier farmers owned one, Indiana boasted more than any other state, according to Hanou.

“Because many barns have been lost to tornadoes, fire, or demolition years ago, it was impossible to locate all of them; however,it is not unreasonable to assume that perhaps as many as 250 to 300 may have stood in the state at one time,” Hanou wrote.

Round and polygonal barns continue to disappear. Since 1990, a total of 37 have vanished from the Indiana landscape, according to surveys by DNR’s Division of Historic Preservation & Archaeology.

This year, non-profit historic preservation group Indiana Landmarks named round and polygonal barns on its “10 Most Endangered” list of at-risk buildings in the state. Weather and disaster threaten every historic structure, but changes in agriculture and technology present an additional risk for these barns. Considered state-of-the-art at a time when farmers still used draft horses and mules, the structures have become obsolete with the development of mechanized equipment and large-scale farming.

A 24-row planter doesn’t fit as neatly into a round barn as it does inside the hangar-like utility buildings that are now common on farms.

All historic barns are at risk, Borland said. Round barns just happen to be “even more quirky.” “You have limited resources,” Borland said. “You have to put it where it generates income. And some people may simply not know what to do. It’s the same with any kind of old building. We call it demolition by neglect.

”Saving round and polygonal barns is important because they are iconic monuments to our agricultural heritage, a symbol of turn-of-the-century innovation, pride and progress. Symmetrical and simple, they catch your eye on a country drive like an elegant roadster in a showroom of gray sedans. “They really stand out on the landscape,” Borland said. READ MORE...

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