The massive wooden Michigan barns, once prevalent in the Upper Thumb. Most of the barns in Michigan’s Upper Thumb were built after the great fires of 1871 and 1881. Unless they were diligently maintained are slowly rotting away. Today’s steel pole barns can be quickly put up and don’t require the massive beams that were taken from Michigan’s old-growth forests.
In the early 1990s, photographer and artist duo, Sue and Don Hardy traveled across the Thumb capturing images of life, culture, and architecture of the region. Here is a small sample of that collection.
Michigan Barn Styles
As old-growth forests were cleared it left large swathes of open fertile land. The Great Fires of 1871 and 1881 further opened the Upper Thumb by removing the slash debris left from the lumber era. With the availability of cheaper sawn lumber in the late 1800s, most Michigan barns were of braced frame construction. This technique allowed for larger and more versatile construction. Air could circulate through the splits between the boards to keep feed hay and straw dry. Large doors provided access and light. Small barns could be attached horizontally, with shed-roof additions on the sides and back.
The entrance and utility of several floors were added if the barn could be located on a hillside. A fieldstone foundation and top floor hayloft expanded the functionality of the barn. Large entrances at both ends or the middle of the barn gave good cross-ventilation. Farm equipment and teams could drive right through. An additional set of top portal openings over the door became a popular method of letting in more light.
Sadly there are many abandoned barns in Michigan. Photographers have been capturing their decay as another form of Urban Ruin Art however the canvas is rural Michigan.
Why Are Barns Painted Red
Colonial farmers didn’t paint their barns at all. By the late 1700s, barns were a costly investment and farmers invoked a bit of Yankee ingenuity to protect their raw wood barns from the elements. It was a practical and functional necessity to protect the most functional building on the farm.
Homemade paint was a combination of raw skimmed milk, lime, and red iron oxide earth pigments. Of course, the iron oxide gave the mixture a red tint. This mixture created a flexible coating that hardened quickly and lasted for years. Later on, linseed oil was consequently added to the ingredients to provide a coating and oil that would be absorbed by the wood.
The iron oxide in the paint mixture protected the wood from mold and moss which tends to break down wood. The functional coating produced in a deep red color. The color also had the effect of heat absorption in the winter months to keep livestock warm. The American “barn red” was truly a case of form following function.
Michigan Barn Research Sources and Reading
The Old Farmers Almanac is a great resource to look at when your researching how things were. Published since 1792, The Almanac is North America’s oldest continuously published periodical.
With a goal to artistically modify 10 barns in 10 years the Greater Port Austin Art and Placemaking Fund has accomplished the 7 of the 10 Michigan barns in the Thumb. See what the artistic work or an old or abandoned Michigan barn at, Port Austin – Home of Barn Art and the Emergency Ark