A barn raising, also historically called a "raising bee" or "rearing" in the U.K., describes a collective action of a community, in which a barn for one of the members is built or rebuilt collectively by members of the community. Barn raising was particularly common in 18th- and 19th-century rural North America. A barn was a necessary structure for any farmer, for example for storage of cereals and hay and keeping of animals. Yet a barn was also a large and costly structure, the assembly of which required more labor than a typical family could provide. Barn raising addressed the need by enlisting members of the community, unpaid, to assist in the building of their neighbors' barns. Because each member was entitled to recruit others for help, the favor would eventually return to each participant.
The tradition of "barn raising" continues, more or less unchanged, in some Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities, particularly in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and some rural parts of Canada. The practice continues outside of these religious communities, albeit less frequently than in the 19th century. Most frames today are raised using a crane and small crew.
A large amount of preparation is done before the one to two days a barn raising requires. Lumber and hardware are laid in, plans are made, ground is cleared, and tradesmen are hired. Materials are purchased or traded for by the family who will own the barn once it is complete.
Generally, participation is mandatory for community members. These participants are not paid. All able-bodied members of the community are expected to attend. Failure to attend a barn raising without the best of reasons leads to censure within the community. Some specialists brought in from other communities for direction or joinery may be paid, however.
One or more people with prior experience or with specific skills are chosen to lead the project. Older people who have participated in many barn raisings are crew chiefs. On the whole, the affair is well organized. At most barn raisings, the community members have raised barns before and approach the task with experience both in the individual tasks and the necessary organization. Young people participating physically for the first time have watched many barn raisings and know what is expected of them.
Only certain specialists are permitted to work on the more critical jobs, such as the joinery and dowling of the beams. (Post and beam construction is the traditional method of construction in barn raisings.) There is competition for these jobs, and they are sought after. Workers are differentiated by age and gender: men construct the barn, women provide water and food, the youngest children watch, and older boys are assigned to fetch parts and tools.
Most barn raisings were accomplished in June and July when the mostly agrarian society members had time between planting season and harvest season. Timber for the framing was mostly produced in the winter by the farmer and his crew hewing logs to the correct shape with axes or felling the trees and bringing them to a sawmill.
An ancient tradition is to place a bough, wreath and/or flag at the high point of the frame after the last piece is in place. This celebration is called topping out and historically the master carpenter may also make a speech and a toast.
In earlier American rural life, communities raised barns because many hands were required. In areas that were sparsely settled or on the edge of the frontier, it was not possible to hire carpenters or other tradesmen to build a barn. The harsher winters gave more urgency to the matter of barn construction than was present in the relatively milder climate in much of Europe. Similar conditions have given rise to similar institutions, such as the Finnish one of 'talkoot'.
Barn raisings occurred in a social framework with a good deal of interdependence. Members of rural communities often shared family bonds going back generations. They traded with each other, buying and selling land, labor, seed, cattle, and the like. They worshipped together. They celebrated together, because cities were too far away to visit with any frequency by horse and wagon. Despite traditions of independence, self-sufficiency, and refusal to incur debt to one another, community barn raisings were a part of life.
Contrast with church construction
Churches were considered as important to communities of the 18th and 19th centuries as barns. In like fashion, they were often constructed using unpaid community labor. There were important differences. Churches were not constructed with the same degree of urgency, and were most often built of native stone in some regions — a more durable material than the wood of which barns were made, and more time consuming to lay. Barns, once completed, belonged to an individual family, while churches belonged to the community.
End of an era
Barn raising as a method of providing construction labor had become rare by the close of the 19th century. By that time, most frontier communities already had barns and those that did not were constructing them using hired labor. Mennonite and Amish communities carried on the tradition, however, and continue to do so to this day.
Group construction by volunteers enjoyed something of a resurgence during the 1970s, when houses, sheds, and barn-shaped structures were constructed for all manner of purposes except the keeping of livestock for a profit. Echoes of the tradition can still be found in other community building projects, such as house building and renovation carried out by Habitat for Humanity.
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