Plains Folk

Mr. Abell’s Round Barn

 

Gerald, my guide to the ghost town of Burnstad and its vicinity in Logan County, figured he could get us there, but not directly. He knew about the Robert Abell round barn, but the problem was, in this wet hydrological cycle we have seen since the early 1990s, many of the section roads of Gerald’s youth have been inundated. After inquiring around, we managed to get to the site and only had to open one gate.

Round barns are an uncommon, but valued element in the North Dakota historic landscape. When I say “round,” I am using a generic term, which also comprises octagonal buildings, but the Abell barn truly is round.

The historical and architectural literature on round barns is all over the place, by which I mean, there is no clear environmental or cultural association with the building type. Some barn types are found in certain types of countryside—it’s hard to have bank barns, for instance, if you don’t have hills. Other barn types, such as German house-barns, are associated with particular ethnic origins.

Round barns have more individualistic origins, popping up as single instances or clusters in various places, born in the fertile mind of some local innovator, who may or may not have read literature about them in other places.

Many of the round barns are associated with particular feeding systems. Some have haylofts. Quite commonly they are built around upright silos, which dispensed feed into troughs and stalls in the barn, so that both workers and livestock were sheltered in winter.

Mr. Abell built his round barn in 1942, which was late for such a building type. Moreover, it incorporates no infrastructure for feeding, having neither loft nor silo. It is a barn in the technical sense that it was built to shelter livestock, but in function, it is really just a cattle shed.

So we are brought back to consider the builder, Robert Abell – what was he thinking in 1942? His origins are a little bit obscure. According to census data, he was born in 1879 or 1880, in Missouri or in North Dakota. He had an eighth-grade education and owned his own farm. He and wife Alvina had a lot of children, at least nine by my count.

In 1986 the State Historical Society of North Dakota did research on round barns and successfully nominated a group of them to the National Register of Historic Places. At that time an Abell son, Bert, recalled that it cost $800 to build the barn. The nomination says the barn is sixty feet in diameter, but it fact, I found it to be about forty-five.

The barn is all milled lumber, except for the six cedar posts holding up the roof in the center. The center posts are tied together under the roof by a circle of inch boards, warped and nailed together four-thick. The round foundation is poured concrete. The walls are supported by heavy vertical studs. The siding is tongue-and-groove, warped and nailed horizontally onto the studs. There is one wide door, facing south.

I know there is a certain efficiency to round buildings, enclosing more space with less material, but this job could have been done a lot more easily as a simple rectangular shed. It is hard to come up with reasons for building the barn as it is except impractical ones: aesthetics and pride in workmanship. In mid-twentieth century those values were going out of style, but I departed the site marveling at their expression in a building still in service on a working farm in Logan County.

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