Hoosier Round Barns


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Round barns in Indiana are a rarity in the 21st century. While Indiana, more specifically, Fulton County, is the round barn captial of the world, few round barns remain standing. These barns are a piece of the historical landscape of the Hoosier state. Round barns are indicative of an agragarian society at the turn of the century. The round barn is a long forgotten ingenuity of a farming society that searched for innovative ways to improve their farming techniques. Bob Hamibaugh stated, "The era of round barns was a time in our agricultural history that was brief, but important. It was the birth of modern farming," ("The Round Barns of Fulton County," By: Lisa Hurt Kozarovich). Frank Retter of Randolph County would agree. As the grandson of a round barn builder, he takes great pride in his family's contribution to this aspect of farming. The round barn that his grandfather built 100 years ago is still in the family and still in use today.

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Where are the round barns of Indiana located?

Round barns are located in numerous areas around Indiana, including northern, eastern, western, central and southern regions.

Dividing Indiana into three general geographic regions (See Figure 1 - Geographic Distribution of Round Barns in Indiana created by John T. Hanou based upon figures obtained during the Indiana Round Barn Survey conducted from 1985 to 1988), the majority of the round barns are located in the Central Flatlands. This is no accident as this is also where most corn, dairy and livestock production occurs in the state. At the turn of the century, the Indiana Prairie was not widely populated or forested. Known for its' tall grasses and wetlands, this region was not conducive to experimental barn building. The Southern Hill Country is rocky and hilly with a limited amount of farmable land. It follows that with less farms, there would be less barns.

Finding yourself in central Indiana with a little time for historic sight-seeing? Grab a picnic, a friend, and enjoy a day of BARN TOURING!

Who was behind the round barn creation in Indiana?

Benton Steele eloquently expressed his feelings of a farm's aesthetic appeal.
"Generally speaking, our farms are utterly devoid of anything like artistic features. There being no indication of original thought or beauty, much less actual practical utility."
-Benton Steele (Father of Indiana's round barns)

Benton Steele's beginnings
Benton Steele was born in 1867, roughly 30 miles east of Indianapolis. He overcame the limitations of a third grade education to later become a skilled carpenter, draftsman, and architect. At the age of thirteen, Steele's interest in the circular shape would peak when his Great Aunt would have an octagonal home constructed. In his teen years, Steele would learn carpentry skills as an apprentice as well as work in a general store and post office. Steele's real talent would shine through as a draftsman and architect, drawing magnificent plans and blueprints. As a man, Steele would advertise his innovative blueprints and drawings of round barns in an Indianapolis agricultural newspaper, "The Indiana Farmer," from 1902 to 1909. This would become the catalyst for pole barn construction in Indiana.

Benton Steele begins the round barn business
Through a loose partnership with Emery McNamees, a contractor that built the first true round barn in Indiana and along with the help of a woodworker by the name of Samuel Frank Detraz, Steele would enter Indianapolis business and political circles in 1901. They would convince these circles of elite that a round barn would save labor and cost less to construct. Steele and Detraz's plans would spark interest in two business men, Frank Goodwine, (senator, bank president, and cattle breeder), and Wymond Beckett, (a lawyer, farmer, and a future senator). Goodwine and Beckett would have Steele construct two colossal round barns, (one 80 feet indiameter and one 100 feet in diameter), on their properties. Beckett was so impressed with his barn he would later pen a letter in 1902 to Detraz and Steele.

Beckett stated the following, " My barn is now completed and I am more that pleased with it. It is the largest and finest barn in the state. There have been thousands of people to see it and all pronounce it the most convenient barn they ever saw. I have a 16-foot windmill on the roof to pump water and grind food. The circular barn is a great improvement over the rectangular plan. I can certainly recommend you and your barn very cheerfully. I think there is no plan of barn to compare with it" (Hanou, John.)

(Photo from Barns in the Midwest, showing Benton Steele,
far right, and his crew posing at a round barn construction site.)

From this great start, Benton Steele would enlist the aid of Detraz and several carpenters as his business quickly expanded and orders flooded in for the round barn.

Benton Steele would record in a note found at the time of his death, "The circular form of building is and always has been and always will be, the ultiamte in architectural form as well as the strongest shapes ever conceived by man. The Creator made and fashioned every known or tangible thing after the circular form and to travel and function in circular or elliptical orbits....by reason of circular motion and because of the circular shape of all terrestrial and existing things" (Steele, Benton)

Round Barns of Today

Many round barns of Indiana are owned privately, but some are also used for public use. Round barns today can be used in the traditional way, but are also being dismantled and moved to public businesses, fairgrounds, museums, and resorts. Tours through private round barns, festivals, parades, and bicycle rides also take place in Indiana. Round barns are making a come back in the 21st century through preservation and renovations.

The Round Barn Bicycle Ride offers cyclists the opportunity to tour two round barns located in southeast Indiana the second Saturday in July.

If you wish to become "up close and personal" with a round barn, you and your family might like to visit McCordsville to stay at the Round Barn Bed and Breakfast. Built in 1916, this round barn has been converted into a bed and breakfast facility, capturing the essence of farm life and farm cooking!

Or, travel to Amish Acres in Nappanee, IN to experience a round barn used in a conspicuous way. Click on the link, (Amish Acres Round Barn Theater), to explore a round barn used for a very special purpose!

A look at Round Barns in Central Indiana

There is just something about round barns. The shape so unique, the size is so large and building material so varyied, you have to stare and say "wow, how did that do that?" Here is a little background on these unusual barns and their functions.

The builders who dotted Indiana's landscape with round barns are a diverse group of men. Emery McNamee started building round barns long before they became popular. Benton Steele, who is the Father of Indiana's round barns, only had a third grade education, but became a skilled carpentor, draftsman and architect. Frank L. Littleton was an Indiana congressman. Samuel Detraz was a woodworker from Pendleton, Indiana and Horace Duncan both bought about and bought an end to the round barn era. Each had a part in bring the round barn era to Central Indiana.

The Woodard Family's round barnin Lapel, Indiana is over 104 years old. Thank you from Amish fireplace

Picture provided by: http://www.dalejtravis.com/barn/indiana/htm/in07601.htm
Benton Steele Information provided by: Hanou, John. A Round Indiana: Round Barns in the Hoosier State. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1993.
Page created by: Bonnie McNair, Mitch Lawson, Michele Linn, Susan Maxwell Sawyer, and Vivian Lawhead.