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Circular Thinking: Round Barns in America

Rectangular is the tradition on U.S. farms, but round barns have a long history. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is the VOA Special English Agriculture Report.

American farmers traditionally keep their animals and equipment in barns that are rectangular, longer than they are wide. But as many as one thousand barns in the Midwest and other parts of the country are round.

Round barns have a long history in America. George Washington, the nation's first president, had a round barn in the seventeen hundreds. The Shaker religious community at Hancock, Massachusetts, built one in the eighteen twenties.

But the idea did not become popular until years later. Then, in the early nineteen hundreds, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign built three round barns that a lot of farmers copied.

A farmer could save on wood or stone with a round building that needed less material than traditional barns. Experts also believed that farmers could save steps, and time, in feeding their animals in a round barn. And round barns stood a better chance against strong winds.

Some round barns are not truly circular. They just look that way but really are many flat sides put together.

Early versions were mainly designed with two levels. Cows were kept on the first level and the one above was used to store hay to feed them. Later designs brought a large area in the middle for the hay and places all around it for the cows.

By the nineteen thirties, however, fewer American farmers were building round barns. Some people said it took more time and skill. Others disagreed. In any case, it was not a good time to argue -- it was the Great Depression, and times were difficult.

Also, as electric power came to rural America, there was a school of thought that rectangular barns were easier to wire for electricity. Agricultural experts also reconsidered their ideas about a round barn saving time in feeding animals.

Kathy and Bob Frydenlund can tell you all about round barns. The Frydenlunds have a library of architectural plans and drawings and have published books on the subject. Their most recent is called "How to Build and Love Your Round Barn."

Money from their book sales helps them take care of their own barn -- a big, ninety-year-old structure made of concrete and wood. The Frydenlunds own the Round Barn Llama Farm in New Richmond, Wisconsin. Bob Frydenlund says having a round barn means keeping alive part of the history of American farming.

This VOA Special English Agriculture Report was written by Jerilyn Watson.