Barns of New York explores and celebrates the agricultural and architectural diversity of the Empire State - from Long Island to Lake Erie, the Southern Tier to the North Country – providing a unique compendium of the architecture of rural New York. Enhanced by more than two hundred contemporary and historic photographs and other images, this book provides a historical, cultural, and economic context for understanding the rural landscape.
By Cynthia G. Falk
Published by Cornell University Press
Softcover. 257 pages
Reviewed for New York History by Sally McMurry, Professor of History, Pennsylvania State University
This attractive book considers New York State’s barns and farm outbuildings in their broad context. A brief introduction briefly considers materials and construction techniques. It is followed by five substantive chapters. The first of these considers the barns of New York State. It notes that in the colonial and early national periods, single-level “Dutch” and “English” barns predominated, but that when dairying became more important, the multi-level “basement” barn appeared, incorporating architectural features that facilitated dairying. These included stanchions, designs for efficient manure removal, and plenty of storage space for hay. The barn story is brought up to date with a discussion of the freestall barn. The second chapter, “Sheltering the Flock, Processing the Product,” treats buildings designed to shelter animals and to process animal products. Dairy processing buildings – spring houses, milk houses, and the like – are carefully explained. Stables, sheep barns, pigpens, and poultry houses also come in for consideration here. The section on poultry houses is especially valuable. Just about every farm produced some poultry, but the scale and method of poultry raising changed over time. Falk describes not only all-purpose housing for small-scale poultry raising, but also more specialized brooder houses, incubators, range housing, and battery housing. Field workers will welcome her clear explanations of how to identify these different types. Next, “From Haystacks to Silos” covers storage facilities on the farm. This too is valuable for its discussion of how hay storage changed over time, as well as for its attention to equipment (like the hay fork) whose advent prompted farmers to make architectural alterations. Falk brings the discussion right up to date with a treatment of silo history. Falk shows us how silo forms and materials changed over time, down to present-day bunker silos and “ag bags.” The fourth chapter, “A farm building for every purpose,” treats more specialized agricultural buildings like hop houses, fruit houses, potato storage houses, and even cabbage houses. Finally, the final chapter, “Powering the Farm,” surveys farm power sources ranging from early “horse power” to wind, steam, gasoline, and electricity.
Prof. Falk enjoys a well deserved reputation as an astute architectural historian, and she shows why here. Her knowledge of form, style, function, and construction consistently serve to advance important insights. She demonstrates that in the rural New York State landscape we can read the history of farming, if we just learn how to “see” the evidence and read it properly. The plentiful historic images and contemporary photographs work beautifully with the text to lend these insights depth. The source base is also substantial. For example, material from farm diairies and memoirs adds individual color to the analysis. Falk was able to engage students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program as collaborators in the research, so the project has served an educational purpose already. However, it will continue to do so with its appeal to a broad readership. The book should also be of interest to preservationists and to a public newly intrigued with local food. After all, the barns and small outbuildings of New York State embody the history of a past food system that was more locally oriented than today’s. Falk concludes with a call to consider how the existing historic rural landscape might serve for the future. She writes: “historic farm buildings often provide the appropriate scale and spaces for farming regional crops in both traditional and innovative ways. Not only are these agricultural buildings appreciated for their architectural, aesthetic, and historic qualities, but rural communities looking to their past and the bucolic landscape as a way to foster economic growth in the form of tourism can benefit from their preservation as well.” (201) Given that crisis in the dairy industry has plunged so many rural New York regions into poverty, it may seem over-optimistic to claim a future for New York State agriculture based on small-scale, diversified operations which make creative use of recycled farm buildings. But it could be argued that the very commitment to large scale and specialization left modernized farms vulnerable. Growing numbers of observers envision an agricultural future for regions in the US that are near metropolitan areas and do not require irrigation. As policy makers, communities, and farming people consider the future, they may indeed look to the past as well, so this book offers a valuable historical perspective for our times.