For many decades, a barn was the most important building on North Dakota farms, protecting the livestock from the harsh weather. Pioneers built simple barns for oxen, cows, or horses, and sturdier barns when they could afford it, with spacious haylofts to provide sufficient fodder for the long winters.
Some of the barns were built into hillsides – if you could find one – but most were the typical rectangular, red, “Prairie Barns.” And there were also round barns.
Round barns had their “hay” day nationally, from the 1880s through the 1920s. They were a part of a movement to create new labor-saving designs in an effort to make agriculture more scientific after the Civil War.
Round barns were two-stories high, with the cows’ stalls positioned in a circle for easy feeding from the center of the building. The circular shape also provided more space than a comparatively-sized rectangular barn, thereby saving money on building materials.
Some farmers built round barns hoping that the harsh winds would blow around the barn without knocking it down. Others believed a tornado was less likely to suck it off its foundation.
Not many North Dakota farmers built round barns – fewer than fifty ever did. In the 1980s, the state historical society conducted a survey of round and octagonal barns. The survey found evidence that a total of 41 had been built, but only 17 were still standing as of 1986.
Eleven of those surviving barns were subsequently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among the most beautiful is the Carlott Funseth barn, three miles north of Northwood, in Grand Forks County. It features two square windows set askew like diamonds on its roofline. But the best-known North Dakota round barn is the Urbain Cote Barn, near Dunseith, on a road leading toward the International Peace Garden.
On this date, in 1998, the Bismarck Tribune warned of a danger for round-barns, noting that the Cecil Baker round barn, near Kensal was rapidly deteriorating and losing its “battle with time.” Its owner could not afford the cost of upkeep.
The biggest problem for any barn-owner is maintaining the roof. When shingles rot, the snow, rain, and ice can ruin the roof, interior, and walls. Eventually, the barn collapses.
And so, North Dakota barn lovers, the time is now to view and photograph remaining barn sites before all round barns disappear from the rural landscape.
Dakota Datebook by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department
“Old Barn Losing Battle with Time,” Bismarck Tribune, July 26, 1998, p. 18.
Steve Hoffbeck, “Round Barns Disappearing from North Dakota’s Landscape,” N.D. Horizons, p. 18-20; has a list of N.D. round barns.
Steven R. Hoffbeck, The Haymakers: A Chronicle of Five Farm Families (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000), p. 113.
“Round Barn Among Sites Being Restored,” Bismarck Tribune, September 19, 2000, p. 14.
L. Martin Perry, “North Dakota Round Barns (Draft),” National Register of Historic Places Thematic Nomination, 1986, National Park Service, p. 1-51.
“Round Barns,” Bismarck Tribune, September 22, 1900, p. 2.
Thomas Visser, University of Vermont Landscape Changes Program, “Styles,” https://www.uvm.edu/landscape/dating/barns/barn_styles.php, accessed June 15, 2019.