Barn History

Its the round
by Lora England - Editor in Chief
Truman State University Index - October 14, 1999

About a mile east of Kirksville on Highway P lies a historical landmark -- one of only a few of its kind left.

It's a barn, but there's something unique about it. It has no sides. Instead, it is completely round and boasts several wooden livestock stalls, 54 windows and a 36-rung ladder leading to a cupola at the top.

Built in 1913, the barn withstands the test of time remarkably well.

"It's in excellent condition," said Dan Vogt, who owns the round barn and the house and property surrounding it. "It's a nice place to live. I wanted to make sure it was kept up."

The wooden walls and support beams have remained intact, and the floor shows few signs of wear. Much of this preservation can be attributed to longtime owner Benjamin Smith, who painted the barn several times and re-shingled the roof.

The round barn, which is one of the few still standing in Missouri, is 64 feet in diameter and 64 feet high, with a self-supporting ceiling. This type of ceiling was beneficial in the days when livestock lived in the barn because there were no poles to take up room when unloading the hay. With so much space, the barn could hold 100 tons of loose hay, according to the article "A Picturesque Landmark" by Jean McCullough.

The lower part of the barn was used to house the livestock; it held mules, horses, hogs and cattle for several decades.

"Circular barns ranging from 60 to 90 feet in diameter are very practical; they will accommodate as many as 100 dairy cows with space to spare," according to a history of round barns on The Barn Journal Web site.

In fact, cows were one of the driving factors behind the origin of the round-barn form. In the book "Stories from the Round Barn" by Jackie Dougan Jackson, it says that "an aerial view of a cow shows it to be wedge-shaped and therefore arranging these wedges around a circle ... represents the most efficient of space."

Other benefits of round barns include the inexpensive construction cost because of the use of less lumber and better insulation against the elements. Also, since the Smith family designed the round barn by a hill, water could easily flow down to the barn from a pond 200 feet up the hill.

In spite of these benefits, round barns have always been a rarity. According to Jackson's book, reasons for this are unclear but may include the slow development of the self-supporting ceiling and the difficulty in enlarging the structure for expanded use.

Orie J. Smith built the barn at a cost of approximately $3,000-5,000. Benjamin Smith, Orie's son, said his father paid a head carpenter $2 per day and a few other workers $1 per day apiece until the job was complete. Construction took approximately one year.

Benjamin Smith was born in 1918 in a second-floor bedroom of the house that still exists on the property. The original house on the land was a log cabin, but it was replaced by the larger dwelling in 1917.

The Smith family owned the barn until this April, when it, the farmhouse and eight acres of land were sold to Kirksville residents Dan and Judy Vogt, who own the Wooden Nickel restaurant on Elson Street. Smith still owns the remainder of the property, which originally totaled 120 acres.

There are 153 round barns listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but there are many barns, including the Kirksville round barn, that are not on the registry. Some are not included because of their deteriorated state, while others simply have not been nominated, according to The Barn Journal site. Most of the round barns in the United States are in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. Many of these barns are actually polygonal, not round.

Vogt said he is interested in preserving the barn, but since it is in good shape he has no plans for renovations in the near future. The barn and the grainery are now used only for storage space, he said. Over the summer, one large project was completed -- a new roof for the barn.

"I'd hate to see it get run down," Smith said. "They've redone the roof and made it brown -- it used to be green."

Although the barn's uniqueness is a selling point in itself, there is another important reason Vogt wanted to buy the barn and surrounding acreage.

"The highway is going to be out there," he said. "The bypass will be there in a few years. That's why no one else has bought it -- it costs a lot."

Vogt would not elaborate on any plans for the property once the Highway 63 bypass is built. However, Vogt said he appreciates the house and barn and enjoys its uniqueness.

Meanwhile, the round barn continues to be an appealing landmark for artists, photographers and history buffs. Over the years, the barn has been featured in a history magazine, several newspaper articles and photographs, area tourism guides and even the cover of the 1986 Kirksville phone book.

Barn Facts
The Round Barn was built in 1913
It was placed on the National Historic Register in 2001.
Cost of construction was between $3000 and $5000.
It's 64 feet in diameter and 64 feet high, with a self-supporting ceiling.
There are two levels, the bottom level for livestock and the top level for hay.
There are 54 windows.
It has a 36-rung ladder leading up to a cupola at the top.
The barn can hold 100 tons of loose hay.
It takes 50 squares of shingles to re-roof the barn.
It requires 150 gallons of paint to cover the barn.