The Building Boom in Brick Barns by Bob Wood

The Building Boom in Brick Barns

Robert Wood


Starting around 1840 and continuing for the next fifty years there was a local building boom in brick-end barns. By “end” we mean the gable walls (the ones that come to a point at the top).

The 19th century was the “golden age” for Pennsylvania farmers. The country and government were now securely established, roads and transport were much improved, and the farm’s product, food, was relatively expensive; all of which combined to make farming profitable. Most Pennsylvania Dutch farmers took pride in their farmsteads, needed larger barns to expand their businesses, and wanted to show their prosperity to their neighbors; building a large, brick, bank barn did all three.

Between the close of the Colonial Era and about 1840 I doubt if there was much brick being burned in the Philadelphia area. (“Burning brick” is the term for firing raw clay bricks to yellow heat to vitrify them). Eighteenth century Philadelphia was built of bricks manufactured right around the city.  In those days, tens of thousands of raw bricks were stacked and fired at one time in large brick kilns, of which there were many. These kilns required an enormous amount of wood kept burning over many days to heat them to the required 2000 degree temperature.  In the early days of settlement this was no problem as wood was little more than a waste product of clearing land,  but as the primeval forest was reduced, a firewood shortage occurred in and around Philadelphia.

By 1800 the price of firewood in the city was sky-high. Not only were there tens of thousands of stoves and fireplaces needing fuel, but the Schuylkill Valley iron industry, flourishing in those days, annually required whole forests of wood to be converted to charcoal. It took 400 bushels of charcoal to produce just one ton of pig iron. To appreciate that amount, consider that a five gallon bucket holds about a half bushel. Once made, the pig iron had to be reheated in the refinery forge and reheated again at the smithy or foundry. All of these operations required charcoal.

This fuel shortage doubtless was the principal motivation for the enormous expense and effort required to built the “navigation” as the Schuylkill canal was called. The canal stretched 108 miles from Philadelphia to the coal fields at the head of the river above Pottsville. The first canal barge, the “Thomas Oakes” landed in Pottstown in 1824. Built at a cost of $1,800,000 for the initial construction, the canal was a remarkable undertaking for the day. It carried all sorts of products, but mainly coal.

It was reported that well over a million tons of coal was transported annually on the slack water of the canal. The carrying charge in 1858 was sixty-five cents a ton. Additionally, by 1838 the railroads had been extended into the coal mining areas and could run all year round, unlike the canals that were unusable during the winter.

Coal could then be had at the Pottstown landing for about four dollars a ton, and coal fired brick kilns sprang up throughout the region. Most towns had one or two; smaller ones were scattered across the countryside. Softer salmon-bricks for the interior walls could be had for about five dollars a thousand, and the hard, vitrified, red stretchers, for the exterior “skin” of the building for about twice that amount.

The large south facing bank barns of Southeastern Pennsylvania with the cantilevered  forebay are so common that they need little description. At the top of the bank were large double doors opening to oak plank floors that could support  loaded wagons of grain sheaves and hay. The hay mows were logically arranged so feed could be dropped to the cattle housed on the bottom level.

About 1810, when these bank barns started to come on the scene, the gable walls were usually of stone masonry up to the peak. Later construction had the stone walls stopping at the eves line and vertical  boards closing the rest of the wall to the peak. When bricks became available, the old stone barn construction was almost universally abandoned here in the New Hanover area as the available building stone was often not the best. The native stone was an assortment of various shales which were often too soft, or granite and argelite, which were hard, dense and difficult to dress. Hence the turn to brick.

The gable walls of most brick barns had openings fashioned by the masons to form patterns and designs that admitted ventilation and light. These designs  reflect the cultural heritage of the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers who built them. Here in New Hanover the “sheaf of wheat” or “hourglass” design is the most common. Elsewhere there are all sorts of patterns: diamonds used horizontally and vertically, triangles, the simple “X”, a vertical slot, and others.

Usually the design is complemented and made more bold by the mason’s use of the burnt, black ends of “blackhead” bricks to form his pattern. These were the very hardest bricks of all. Care had to be taken to use only the hard, “red stretcher” bricks in the outer barn walls as these  were fully vitrified and so would not deteriorate like the softer salmon brick when exposed to the weather. The different bricks, blackheads, red stretchers, and salmon, came from different places within the same kiln, the blackhead ones having been exposed to the highest temperatures.

Our brick barns are rapidly disappearing. By my count, four along the Swamp Pike in New Hanover have been demolished within the last decade. Owners of those few remaining ones who hope to maintain them are to be commended for their foresight in preserving these architectural treasures. We wish them well.

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