Dutch Barn Preservation Society

Dedicated to the Study and Preservation
of New World Dutch Barns

NEWSLETTER SPRING 2002, Vol. 15, Issue 1, part two


This is a job I can remember doing as a young man, about 1933. On a blistering July day, the three-horse team pulled hard on the reaper binder. The machine spit out oat sheaves very fast. My cousin and I would stand these sheaves upright against one and other in groups of four or six to make a shock. I'm sure the youngsters of colonial times did the same kind of work as their mother, the binder, wrapped the sheaves of wheat in 1680.

After about a week of drying in the shock the sheaves were ready to be put into the barn. The bundles would be forked on to a wagon (4 wheels and two horses) or a cart (2 wheels and one horse) for transport. They would be neatly stacked to facilitate a large load and ease of unloading. One man could drive and load while two men forked. The wagon was driven into the barn on to the threshing floor and the load was pitched into the side aisle. One or two men would stack the sheaves neatly on the poles that lay between the column sill and the sidewall sill. Most of the side aisles could be filled from wagon height. The loft would require extra help to move the sheaves to the great height. Once the crop was all in the barn, urgency disappeared. Phase one of the harvest was complete.

Phase two could take place at a leisurely pace consistent with other jobs around the farm such as tillage for next years crop, clearing woodland and growing other food and fiber. The flail was an age-old tool. A fresco in the Palazzo Publico in Siena, Italy by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, "Good Government in the Country" ca.1339 shows two characters outside the barn flailing in unison, likely, to the rhythm of some chantey, as they beat the straw. The Dutch barn in 1680 provided ample space for this job in complete shelter. The central portion of floor level, usually 30x50 feet was designated as the threshing floor. Thick, wide floorboards, usually splined, gave a hard, impenetrable, surface to work on. A batch of sheaves were tossed down, from storage, and spread through the center of the threshing floor. A good number of flailers could work there together. The staff was grasped with two hands and the beater rod or swingle (sometimes called a souple) was brought down sharply against the open sheaves on the floor. This blow separated the grain from the straw. Yield was reported as seven bushels per man day. The denuded straw was forked into the side aisle for future use as livestock feed, bedding, and other uses. The chaff and grain would be swept to the side for future winnowing.

In this process, the huge barn doors played an important role. They could be manipulated to control the prevailing winds through the threshing floor. Open fully or partially, they could act as a valve to control the volume of air from the north wind, (Barns usually had north-south orientation.)

With the gable end doors adjusted and all other doors closed, there would be a steady flow of air to facilitate the separation of the collection of material left after threshing. As much material as could be lifted easily would be put in a winnowing basket or tray. The container was about 4 feet across and had shallow sides part way around to contain the material. With outstretched arms the winnower would grasp the tray and toss the contents up into the moving air with the intention of catching it again as it fell. As the material was airborne, the breeze would blow away the lighter material. This would be repeated until all chaff and dirt drifted away leaving the heavy kernels of grain in the basket. The grain, ready for the mill, was then bagged. The cloth for bags was probably made from hemp, a very staple strong thread. Sacked grain was particularly subject to damage from rodents. Storage anywhere, for any length of time was risky, The best defense was the regular shipment to the mill where the grain would be sold or the flour returned for domestic use and kept in barrels.

Another method of winnowing was by the use of a shovel or scoop. With this tool, a pile of material on the floor was attacked with the shovel. A shovel full was thrown into and against the wind. The heavy material traveled the furthest and the lighter, "tailed'" away along the floor. At the head of the resulting pile was the grain for the mill. The less desirable part for home use and livestock feed. This very scene was caught on TV recently, being carried out in modern China in the production of rice.

The culture of wheat in the late 17th century included practices that had existed for hundreds of years. The only new thing was the huge barn with the processing area inside.

Using 157 farms in Kings County as specific examples, (DBPS Newsletter, spring 2001 page 7) there emerges a picture of a typical farm of 50 acres, occupied by seven people. The taskmaster, faced with a deadline of four 1/2 weeks in which to harvest 32.3 acres of wheat, might make the following assignments:

Reapers 1 .5
Binders 1.0
Shockers .5
Teamster 1.0
Loaders 2.0
Total Field hands 6.0

The pace of the work would be set by the 1.5 reapers, each covering .66 acres a day. This would take 50 man-days or 33 calendar days, well within the time limits. Work in the barn, threshing and winnowing would take another 65 man days before all the bagged grain was ready for shipment.

The barn was especially adapted to compartmentation. The space could be segmented between the bents in the side aisles, and designated for different crops. The space could have been shared with neighboring farms as well. The barns capacity could easily have accommodated five farms like that above. (DBPS Newsletter Spring 2000, page 5)

Most of each farm was devoted to growing grain, and the late summer landscape was a beautiful quilt of golden yellow. Almost all of the community, which was 95% rural, got involved in the harvest. This would have been necessary in order to meet the requirements that had developed for food and exports.

In the next issue, we will discuss the engineering, STATICS, of the barn.


Recently I was asked, "Why preserve the American Dutch Barn?"

When you truly believe in something you don't have to keep convincing yourself of the fact. I was not ready for the question and it took me by surprise. I had difficulty answering. The usual cliches, "History, Heritage, and joinery" did not express my deep feelings for the subject. These can be relegated to a history book.

Later I found the real reason to save the barn, "It is a work of art." For me, this is not an unusual observation for I am a serious amateur artist. I have frequented museums and galleries for most of my life and I always come away from these places stimulated and impressed. That is how I feel standing on the threshing floor of a well preserved American Dutch barn. The Wempl the Wemple, and even the replica Graulich barn are great examples. They can stir one's soul and this feeling cannot be relegated to a book.

Many years ago the Metropolitan Museum of Art paid the record sum of two million three hundred thousand dollars for the Dutch master painter Rembrandt's ARISTOTLE CONTEMPLATING THE BUST Of HOMER. I saw it. There was no question of preserving that painting. Rembrandt died in 1669, not long before the first American Dutch barn, VAN BERGEN in 1680. We carry on the Dutch artistic tradition, with the authentic, preserved, barn buildings of today. The editor.

Drawing: FANCY SCARF, taken from column sill at the Lazzari Barn in Rotterdam, New York.

The Dutch Barn Preservation Society

c/o The Mabee Farm Historic Site
1080 Main St. (Rt. 5S)
Rotterdam Junction, NY 12150

Site Phone: (518) 887-5073



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