Landmarks : Round Barns in South Dakota

Posted by Michael Zimny on

If the architectural forms that speckle the American farmscape are a family of sorts, the round, or polygonal, barn was always like an eccentric uncle. 

Their builders may not have anticipated the geodesic domes that R. Buckminster Fuller would popularize among the counterculture two generations after the round barn boom, but they always stuck out, a far flung gaggle of rebels against respectable geometry. There may have never been more than one thousand nationwide.

In his 1995 study, “South Dakota’s Round and Polygonal Barns and Pavilions," Steph J. Arendt estimated that “Only approximately one-tenth of one percent of the state’s 34,000 farms and ranches have or had a round barn.” At the time of the study — a National Historic Register multiple property documentation submitted by the South Dakota State Historical Preservation Center — up to 36 of South Dakota’s original 44 round barns were still standing.

Round or polygonal barns were built for general farm use, as dairy barns, hog houses, sale barns and as exhibit pavilions. The majority were built East River, with the largest number of those in the far Northeastern region. Another cluster sprung up in the Sioux Falls area. Round barns arrived West River late in their heyday, and only a handful were ever built west of the 100th Meridian.

The 20-sided Nold Hog House, built by John Nold in Potter County in 1903, was South Dakota’s first round or polygonal barn. Statewide, a few others were built between 1903-1910. By 1910, the defining features of an Early Period of South Dakota’s round barns took shape.

Features of round barns from the Early Period include roofs that require support and the absence of interior silos. Because their cupolas did not encompass silos, they were generally smaller than the round barns that came later.

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The Corson Emminger Barn (1910), built just south of Watertown, is a surviving example. Corson Emminger came to Codington County from Wisconsin, where round barns were more prevalent. The barn he built for a cost of $1,500 is 50 feet in diameter, made from concrete block and topped with a polygonal cupola. Reportedly, Emminger only used the barn for a short time. When he moved to Watertown, he left behind a landmark well-known to a century's worth of travelers on their way to where he was headed.

The South Dakota round barn boom spanned the years 1910-1920, as established farmers and ranchers began to grow their farmsteads into larger-scale operations. Manufacturers began distributing pre-cut kits for round barns as well as other agricultural buildings during this time as well. An interior silo became a key characteristic of round barns during this period, possibly beginning with the Crane Round Barn in Brown County.

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C.B. Sloat built Sloat’s Round Barn north of Gettysburg, Potter County, in 1916. The 100-foot diameter barn housed hogs, beef and dairy cattle. The true round barn features a 2-pitch conical roof and gambrel-roofed entrance. The barn still stands today.

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As of this writing, your SDPB correspondent cannot find the year of origin for these twin, 12-sided polygonal barns in Zell.

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Though the majority of South Dakota round barn builders employed wood frame construction, in the late teens and early 1920’s, the hollow clay tile round barn proliferated through parts of Iowa, Nebraska and Southeastern South Dakota. Many of these barns can be traced to the Johnston Brothers Clay Works of Fort Dodge, Iowa. Though not directly traceable to the Johnston Brothers firm, the Dickens Farm barn, built in 1917 in Lincoln County outside Worthing, is stylistically representative of the Late Period Southeastern Hollow Clay Tile Round Barns.

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The Freier Round Barn in Jones County, northeast of Draper, was built by M.E. Studervant in 1918. The barn measures 60 feet in diameter, with 18 sash windows and four doors. Built from a mail order kit, most likely made by the Gordon-Van Tine Company of Davenport, Iowa, the Freier barn is the only known remaining example of a round barn made from a pre-cut kit in South Dakota. Alex Freier purchased the barn in 1948 and for many years employed it to house sheep. The barn was re-sided in the 1980’s, but with great care taken to retain the historical integrity of the structure, according to the form filed to list the property on the National Register of Historic Places.

The round barn era came to an end in the early 1920's, as some of its earlier proponents in the agricultural press turned against it for various reasons including, "impracticability of increasing its size by building additions." Carpenters could also charge more for round barn construction. Only four South Dakota round barns with known dates of origin were built after the last of the boom time round barns, the Stark Barn in McCook County, was built in 1921.   

Exactly how many of the 36 South Dakota round barns documented as still standing in 1995 are still standing today? We'll try to find out in the coming months. 

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