Most early barns in San Juan County were constructed with a framing system that included a bottom wooden member (a sill) upon which posts were then erected.  In order to keep the sill level and free from contact with the soil, cedar stumps or posts, usually placed on top of level field stones, were used.  Upon occasion the sills were placed directly on top of level field stones.  Later, when pole framing was used in the islands, at times these posts were buried directly into ground, although this proved to be more susceptible to rot.

Later barns had concrete or masonry (brick or stone) foundations.  The earliest use of Portland cement (concrete) in the islands seems to be in the 1910s; prior to that time the mortar used in masonry construction was lime-based.  Several barns feature fieldstone foundations; only one brick (on top of concrete) wall has been located in the county (Hudson Barn, San Juan Island). Concrete was used extensively for foundations and other features of dairy barns and related farm buildings, such as milk houses, in part in response to the ‘pushing’ of ‘improved’ (‘scientifically managed’) designs for dairy operations.  Stanchion pads and feeding troughs, holding tanks for milk cans, and other features made use of concrete as a solid, impervious, washable surface.


Hudson’s  Bay Company Frame.  The Hudson’s Bay Company brought with them the men and their building techniques that they had acquired when working around Hudson’s Bay and the Red River Valley.  The general French Canadian term for log construction was pièce sur pièce (simplified from pièces de bois sur pièces de bois—pieces of wood on pieces of wood).  More specifically, structures that consisted of vertically-grooved posts filled with planks or squared logs was called poteaux et pièce collisante (posts and sliding piece), and the posts themselves were placed on sills (poteaux sur sole), as opposed to another method in which the posts were set in the ground (poteaux en terre).  With its dissemination into the Red River Valley by French Canadian voyageurs, pièce sur pièce poteaux et pièce collisante took on the name of Red River Style.  After the absorption of the Red River-based Northwest Company by the Hudson’s Bay Company, the style soon became known as “Hudson’s Bay Company Frame” where it was used throughout the West (so much so that it is also commonly referred to as the “Canadian” style).

Although logs were used in this style of construction, they were hewn to 6 or 7 inches square before use.  A sill (sole) was either placed upon the ground or supported by rocks or cedar stumps.  Fitted into this by means of mortise and tenon were corner and intermediary squared posts, which had a mortise of about 2” wide and 3-4” deep running their full lengths.  Into these grooves, shorter logs with ends formed into tenons or tongues were slipped down horizontally from above, forming solid wall panels.  Openings such as doorways were framed by vertical posts on either side.  On the middle of the gable ends of the structures, a vertical post would rise to the full height of the gable, in order to carry the ridge beam, from which rafters were sloped to a plate on top of the side wall panels and posts.  Cracks between the logs were chinked with cotton, moss, or mud.  Floors usually consisted of either smaller logs hewn flat or planks.

Timber Frame.  After the Hudson’s Bay Company, most early barns were constructed with timber frames: hewn posts and beams that were connected with pegged, mortise-and-tenon joints.  Large sills, or horizontal beams resting on stone or stone-and-wood-pier foundations, supported upright posts and horizontal beams called plates (on top of the posts) or girts, spanning between.  Typical sizes were around 8”x8”, although they could be either smaller or larger.  Smaller (6”x6”) timbers called braces were placed diagonally in corners of the frame to prevent wracking.  The roof was supported by a cross tie (also called a cross beam or cross girt), which formed the lower tie of a truss that was supported by either a single (“king”) post or two (“queen”) posts.  The rafters above formed the two top sides of the triangle.  Horizontal beams running the length of the roof horizontally were called purlins, and diagonal braces supporting these from the cross beams were called struts.

Pole Construction.  Later, builders erected simple poles with beams attached with nails or spikes.  At times these poles were supported on foundation stones or were buried into the ground.  A common distinctive feature of these poles are that they are not only barked (the bark removed with a draw knife) but also charred.  It is not clear if trees already burned in forest fires were deliberately chosen, or if logs were charred after felling.   Dimensional milled lumber, usually of (2x8s) were nailed to the tops of the posts as plates, or to the sides as braces.

Balloon and Platform Frame Construction.  With the advent of milled lumber, support and wall systems were constructed of smaller, dimensional lumber such as 2x4s, 2x6s, 2x8s, 2x10s, etc.  Because this lumber was so much smaller than timber, it was often referred to as “stick” construction.  In forming a two-story structure, there were two methods: balloon, where upright studs extending the full length of the structure, and the floor was ‘hung’ from them, or platform, in which each story had a separate structure (one placed on top of the other).


The form of a barn is primarily determined by the shape that the roof takes: gable, gambrel, gothic arch, or bow.  Early barns had simple gable roofs, consisting of two equally pitched slopes.  Farmers then often added sheds (also called “lean-tos”) to one or several sides, giving barns a spread-out look.  Depending on how the shed was added, different roof forms result.  When a shed is added to one side, continuing the roof line, it might be called a “Saltbox” (integrated lean-to).  If added to one or two sides but with a shallower pitch, the result is called a “broken gable” or “gable with high lean-tos”  If sheds were added to both sides, but starting lower down on the wall and thus leaving the upper part of the side exposed, this has been called a “monitor,” “basilican,” or “Western” barn.  At times the roof extended all the way down to a first floor side wall, in which case the form is historically called a “Dutch” barn.

With the advent of milled lumber and standardized plans, frame walls supported roof trusses, which were in turn built up with sections of small, dimensional “2xs” to form the distinctive gambrel, gothic, and bow roofs that we associate with classic dairy barns.  Proponents of these roof systems argued that not only did they allow for greater volume of space for hay storage, but there were no timber frame cross beams or bents to get in the way of hay track systems, and they used less wood, less skilled labor, and less handwork.  Gambrel roofs are defined by two slopes per side; an upper one with a pitch of about 30 degrees and a lower one with a pitch of 60 degrees.  Gambrel-roofed barns are called “English” if the eaves continue in a straight line and “Dutch” if they flare upward (forming a “Dutch knuckle”).  The lamination of smaller pieces of lumber to form continuously-curved arches led to two roof types: Gothic or pointed and round or bow.  (Although elsewhere in Washington State barns were built with either hipped or conical roofs (on round or multisided [“centric”] barns, none are known in the San Juan islands.)

Early roof cladding consisted of either shakes or shingles made from cedar.  Later metal was introduced, first in the form of corrugated tin and galvanized steel, and later as enamelized steel.  It is not uncommon to encounter metal that has been installed over the original wood roofs.  Asphalt composition shingles are also used.

The roof typically extends out over the sides and gable ends of barns at least a foot in order to shed water.  Usually the rafters are left exposed in these eaves, rather than being ‘boxed-in’ with finished lumber.


The most common siding of barns consists of thin (¾-1”), wide (9-12”) boards nailed vertically to the stringers of the frame.  Builders often nailed up “green” (i.e., not seasoned) lumber, which subsequently shrank to leave gaps between the boards for ventilation.  Battens—narrow strips of wood—were sometimes added on sides or portions of the walls more exposed to wet weather.  Some barns have milled horizontal siding such as clapboard (lapped boards) or “drop siding” or shiplap (boards with rabbeted joints).  Clapboard was usually 3” wide; however, in some instances a narrower (2½”) board—usually associated with the Arts and Crafts or Bungalow styles–was used.  Shiplap, also called “novelty siding,” came in two standard forms: a 5¼” exposed face with recessed “V” joints on the top and bottom (3/4” thick, with a 3/8” x 5/8” rabbet); and a 5¼” face with a 13/8” tall, ¼” deep incision (with a concave groove on the bottom) along the top of each board (sometimes called “German drop siding”).  In some instances—typically interior walls needing a vermin-proof surface, such as granaries—7” exposed face boards, with joints rabbetted to produce a flush surface, were used to establish a tight fit.  Trim was added to cover the gaps where these siding met at corners and other angles; these corner boards and “rake molding” (along gable ends beneath the eaves) were usually standard dimension (1×4) stock.


Doors in barns are of two basic types: small ones, which allowed the farmer and other personnel to enter the structure, and large ones used for the entry of stock or crops such as hay.  Most small doors were simple construction of milled boards held together with a “Z” framework, although later standard stock doors were used.  Larger doors were also constructed of rough milled boards, although with the introduction of milled siding such as shiplap, they could be made of those materials.  Early on strap hinges were used to hang these larger doors.  However, around the middle of the 19th century overhead tracks were attached above the opening, usually on the exterior, with wheels from which the single doors were hung.  The hardware of these doors is often stamped with the name and location of the company that produced it, such as…

Hay doors offer a special case.  Openings were located in the upper gable ends in order to allow for transportation of the hay to the mow or loft by means of trolleys on tracks. Most doors are rectangular in shape, with pointed upper ends shaped to fit under the slopes of the roof, and hinged at the bottom.  However, some consist of two leaves that hang from diagonal tracks located under the eaves; these slide sideways away from each other to allow for the opening.  In a few instances, doors slid down vertically, counterbalanced with heavy weights (cement blocks or wooden boxes filled with gravel) on ropes or metal cables threaded through pulleys.


Windows in barns are usually associated with dairy areas, where good lighting was needed for the task of milking the cows at their stanchions.  Commonly windows were composed of units of rectangular (22” wide by 29” high) wooden sash with four 10”x12” lites.  In order to provide ventilation as well as easy removal, some units could be placed loosely in a frame with diagonal strips that angled up and inward on the inside jambs, so that the sash could be leant inward or removed for cleaning.


Ventilators were included in barns for two reasons: to allow for warm air to escape, in order to keep a lower space cool (used in fruit barns and root cellars); and to allow for the ventilation of humid and odiferous vapors, usually from dairy or poultry areas.  The location of the ventilation shaft could either be in the approximate middle of the floor plan, up through the ceiling and roof structure, or, in some cases, following the side of the barn upward along the underside of the gable or gambrel roof to a ventilator located at the peak.   Early ventilators were constructed of regular wood framed around a foot square shaft, with a gable roof and wooden louvers on the sides to allow for ventilation while discouraging the entry of vermin.  In the case of larger and more elaborately decorated ventilators, one could easily call them cupolas.  In the early twentieth century, with the introduction of prefabricated dairy equipment, galvanized-steel ventilators became available; these featured fans on the inside that rotated with the drafts of rising warm air.


Prior to the Rural Electrification program in the 1930s, some farms had individual generating systems.  On November 15, 1912, the San Juan Islander reported that “Chas. Churchill is installing an engine and a complete electric plant on the farm of O.E. Clough.  The residence, barn, chicken and other houses will be wired, and Mr. Clough will have every facility that a city power and lighting department could afford.”  An early (1880-1930s) electrical system in barns (as well as houses and other outbuildings) is knob and tube wiring, named for the porcelain knobs (nailed to walls and ceilings as holders) and tubes (used to pass through studs and walls) that insulated copper wire conductors.  One such system was provided by “The Wadsworth Electric Mfg. Co. Inc., Covington, KY” in the Peterson Barn on San Juan Island.  The main use of electricity was for lighting, particularly for dairy barns where much of the work took place before and after daylight hours, although with the introduction of mechanized dairy equipment such as power-driven separators and vacuum pumps for milking, electric power was one alternative to gasoline driven systems.  In a study of dairy farms in Minnesota, it was estimated that “time spent on milking chores was cut 45 percent with electrification” (Marilyn Brinkman 1988, cited in MN 6.93).

In 1938 the newly-formed Orcas Electric Company (soon renamed Orcas Power and Light Company or OPALCO) obtained a Rural Electrification Administration loan to establish a generator plant, transmission lines, and other equipment for an electric power system; a year later the lines became active.  Orcas farmers were instrumental in getting the program going.


Most barns were left unpainted, with the exterior siding left to weather into a beautiful patina of lichen-covered grey.  When painted, the most common color was red, first consisting of a linseed oil base with iron oxide (rust) added to form a reddish-brown hue.  Later, more modern oil and latex-based paints were used.  In the early twentieth century, with growing interest in efficient and sanitary farm operations, barns were painted white, at first with lime-based whitewash and later with oil-based paints.


In several barns, tallies of grain and/or bales have been penciled onto the interior walls, usually near the mow, loft, or grain rooms.  Often these may be differentiated by the name of the customer or owner.

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