Thousands of New England’s historic barns have survived severe weather, westward migration, suburban sprawl and competition from corporate agribusiness.
Often connected to other farm buildings and the farmhouse, they usually had many uses. Historic barns sheltered dairy cows, teams of oxen, horses, hay and crops.
Some historic barns, on the other hand, were built specifically for one purpose, like Connecticut tobacco or Vermont dairy cows.
But typical New England farm families grew a variety of crops and livestock, making and selling anything to support the farm. A New England farmer might sell maple syrup, timber, clothing, hard cider and barrels. He might run a tavern, or rent out his rooms or his beehives.
Big House, Little House…
Northern New England’s historic barns often connect to the house and to other buildings, Thomas L. Hubka described such connected farm buildings as ‘Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn.’
Though you might assume New Englanders connected their houses to outbuildings because of the weather, you would be only partly right.
According to Hubka, the agricultural reform movement beginning in the early 19th century inspired New England farmers to make their farms more efficient.
So they connected their houses with such outbuildings as barns, ells, chicken coops, sugar houses, woodsheds, workshops and carriage sheds.
Farming as a way of life has waned in New England, but the public appetite for locally grown, unadulterated food is sparking a revival on a smaller scale.
If you have any favorite historic barns in New England, please share them in the comments section.
Windsor Tobacco Barn
Tobacco loved the sandy soil of Windsor, Conn., and in 1640 farmers began planting tobacco seeds from Virginia. As cigar smoking grew popular in the early 19th century, Connecticut farmers began to specialize in cigar binders using Broadleaf and Havana Seed. Eventually, they grew a light, tasty tobacco under tents of hand-woven cloth (hence ‘shade tobacco’) to use as wrappers.
By the middle of the 19th century, Connecticut emerged as a leading producer of tobacco. The tobacco Valley ran from Springfield to Hartford.
Tobacco farmers relied on seasonal labor from college campuses in the South, including Morehead College, which sent a young Martin Luther King, Jr., to Simsbury. They also used local child labor. World War II and the passage of child labor laws forced farmers to rely on immigrant workers from Puerto Rico and Jamaica.
Health concerns and competition from mass-produced cigar wrappers caused Connecticut’s tobacco acreage to dwindle.
Windsor produced more shade tobacco than anywhere else in the state. So in 1988, the Connecticut Valley Tobacco Historical Society formed in Windsor to preserve artifacts from the era. The historical society’s Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum is located in Northwest Park in Windsor.
135 Lang Road, Windsor, Connecticut
Sabbathday Lake Barns
Ann Lee founded the Shaker sect, formally known as the The United Society of Believers, in Manchester, England, in 1847. Lee broke away from the Quakers, and her followers were known as the ‘Shaking Quakers’ because of their ecstatic dancing during Sunday meeting.
After Ann Lee – known as ‘Mother Ann’ – went to prison for her beliefs, she came to America with eight followers in 1774.
The Shakers expanded to 19 utopian communities throughout the Northeast and Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Georgia and Florida. They preached a doctrine of celibacy, self-sufficiency, pacifism, communal living and equality between the sexes.
By the 1840s, the Sabbathday Lake Shakers had carved a large enterprise out of the Maine forests. They owned 1,900 acres and 26 large buildings, including barns, a meetinghouse, a blacksmith shop and a large dwelling house.
The Sabbathay Lake Shakers built their barns in the New England style, the most common found in the region. Larger than typical barns in other parts of the country, they have doors at the ends and basements. The Shakers built the Sabbathday Lake barns into the side of a hill, which allowed them to access the upper floor from the ground.
The Shakers peaked in the 1840s, with 6,000 members throughout the United States. Their belief in celibacy would doom them to slow, near extinction.
707 Shaker Road, New Gloucester, Maine
Old Tavern Farm
Like many historic barns in Northern New England, the barn at the Old Tavern Farm in Greenfield, Mass., connects to buildings with other uses.
The Old Tavern Farm served many purposes over the centuries, reverting today to its original use as a bed and breakfast.
The farm’s early owners supplemented their farm income by running a tavern – or perhaps it was the other way around. They served neighbors and travelers along the Old Post Road
The tavern also served as a meeting place, a courtroom and a newsroom, noted the registration form for the National Register of Historic Places. The property doubled as a military training field, sports arena, stockyard and fairgrounds.
Samuel Hinsdale inherited the farm from his father, Mehuman Hinsdale, once taken captive by Indians in the 1704 raid on Deerfield. Hinsdale began building on the land in 1740, and by 1747 he operated a tavern.The main house was built around 1820, but the wing was built in 1794 on Hinsdale’s foundation.
Others ran the tavern from 1836 until 1860, when the temperance movement shut it down. The Smith family ran the 160-acre farm from the latter part of the 19th century until 1997.
817 Colrain Road, Greenfield, Massachusetts
Ocean Born Mary’s son Thomas Wallace once owned the land in Henniker that became the Bennett Farm. The son of the legendary New Hampshire woman then sold it to Joseph Lewis in 1777. Its subsequent owners ran it as a tavern until 1848. From that point on, its owners ran it as a typical Northern New England farm.
The barn was built in 1834 as a religious meeting house. Around 1860, the Bennett Farm’s barn burned down, so the farm’s owner moved the meeting house to the farm and converted it to a barn. The top of the steeple blew off during the Hurricane of 1938, leaving a cupola. .
Mark Bennett bought the farm in 1902, and his son Stephen took over when his father died in 1925 and ran it into the 1960s. Stephen’s son now runs the farm.
“Bennett Farm as it survives today conveys the character and scale of a late 19th-early 20th century diversified family farm,” notes The National Register of Historic Places registration form.
11 Bennett Rd., Henniker, New Hampshire
Mount Hope Farm
The Mount Hope Farm in Bristol, R.I., includes a mansion built in 1745 and expanded in 1840 and 1895, and two historic barns built in 1860. But it also owes its significance to its storied owners and connected events.
Once the traditional seat of the Wampanoag Indians, Benjamin Church killed King Philip nearby. The colonists then confiscated the land, and the wealthy merchant and slave owner Isaac Royall, Jr., built the farmhouse in 1745. But Royall’s Loyalist sympathies forced him to move to Halifax at the outbreak of the American Revolution.
The State of Rhode Island then confiscated the land again. Proceeds from the sale of Mount Hope went to pay Continental Army officers and soldiers.
William Bradford, great, great grandson of the Pilgrim governor, bought the house in 1783, and George Washington visited him for a week there. Bradford later won election to the U.S. Senate. The farm is also known as the Governor Bradford House, though he only served as deputy governor.
In the early 1950’s, the then-owner, Rudolf F. Haffenreffer, III, deeded Mount Hope and approximately 250 acres of the original farm to Brown University.
“Today, this handsome estate with its historic mansion and beautiful gardens, is an island of tranquility in an increasingly urban landscape,” noted the National Register of Historic Places registration form.
250 Metacom Ave., Bristol, Rhode Island
Shelburne Farms Horseshoe Barn
Cornelius Vanderbilt’s granddaughter, Eliza Osgood Vanderbilt Webb, created a classic Gilded Age gentleman farm in Shelburne, Vt.
Eliza and her husband, Dr. William Seward Webb, bought up small farms to create their 3,800-acre estate in 1886. They hired Frederick Law Olmsted to design the winding drives, scenic vistas, parklands, gardens and a golf course.
Among Shelburne Farms’ historic barns is the horseshoe barn, not one of the original buildings designed by architect Robert Henderson Robertson. It was built later as the next generation of Vanderbilts struggled to keep up the farm.
The Webbs’ daughter-in-law, Electra Havemeyer Webb, turned Shelburne Farms into a museum. She wanted a proper setting for the carriage collection, so she searched and found a rare horseshoe-shaped dairy born in Georgia, Vt.
Because the owner refused to sell it, Electra had her staff find, move and assemble hand-hewn beams from 12 historic barns and stone from two gristmills. They finished the 238-foot-long barn in 1949.
In 1957, the museum built the annex to house 150 more vehicles added to the collection.
In 1972, the Webb descendants incorporated Shelburne Farms as a nonprofit educational organization. It has 400 acres of sustainably managed woods and a grass-fed herd of Brown Swiss cows. It’s also one of the principal concert sites for the Vermont Mozart Festival. Shelburne Farms also features an inn and restaurant, open seasonally, on the shores of Lake Champlain, tours, walking trails, a children’s farmyard and a farm store that sells, among other things, cheddar cheese.
Shelburne Farms, 1611 Harbor Road, Shelburne, Vermont
Images: Bennett Farm By User:Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19490337; Old Tavern Farm By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24500134.
Mount Hope Barn by By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28160904.
This story about historic barns was updated in 2023.