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CREATING AN AMERICAN FARMSCAPE: Historic Catalysts for the Development of the Rural American Farmstead

Edward G. FitzGerald
ANTH 463 Prof. Kolb 11/27/05

By far the most significant force that shaped the rural countryside evolved from the vast agricultural base that once dominated the American economy. The common denominator of this activity was the farm, and the nucleus of each farm was a group of structures representing the farmstead. These agrarian structures, as described in America’s Forgotten Architecture, “constitute probably the most diverse elements of the built environment.”1 Yet, whether viewed from the air or ground, the American rural landscape is characterized by certain standard features prominent among which is the contiguous fence-enclosed farm, situated on a rectangular plot, whose focal point is the farmstead with its single family-dwelling. This arrangement, involving compact farms, fenced-in fields, and isolated farmsteads, stands in contrast to another system prevailing in eastern and southeastern Asia and in many parts of Europe, where scattered noncontiguous unfenced fields, and farmsteads grouped into rural villages are the rule.2 This paper will attempt to identify the historic factors that molded the rural American agrarian landscape, with its characteristic features, as we know it today.

OLD WORLD INFLUENCE In ancient times, when crop growing and cattle breeding began to supplement hunting and fishing, a fundamental change took place in the structure of the traditional tribal community. A place was needed for animals, tools, and the land’s harvest. The farm shelter came into being as the core for a more settled form of existence. The signs of this ancient transformation still exist in parts of Northern Europe where there are remains
Cover photo by W. H. Tishler, Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology (1978, 10:68). Northern Wisconsin Farmstead. 1 The National Trust for Historic Preservation, America’s Forgotten Architecture (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976), 84. 2 G. T. Trewartha, “Some Regional Characteristics of American Farmsteads,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 38 (1948): 169-225.



of simple earthen structures that housed a clan of several generations under one roof on an ancestral plot of cleared land.3 As technology and social systems changed, the single communal dwelling with its clan-related tract of land evolved into smaller holdings with a series of separate or attached buildings. The added influences of geography, climate and varying economic practices resulted in a great variety of patterns in the plan and general layout of the farm. According to the classification outlined by French geographer Albert Demgeon, European farmsteads fall into two main types: those built in one block and those with a yard or court.4 The block farm could be built horizontally, on the ground, with only one floor above the ground floor, and with different sections placed side by side; or it could be built vertically with several stories, the stables being on the ground floor, living quarters above, and the barn on the top. The court farm consisted of several buildings which were separated or built at right angles; these buildings surrounded a yard or were scattered through an enclosed court (see Fig. 1& 2) . Fred Kniffen, a geographer of folk housing, has pointed out the “strong influence of European precedent over early [American] in both mode of construction and form.”5 In a similar way, one can trace the Old World roots of the site arrangement of early American rural farmsteads. A variation of the European block farmstead can be found in the “connecting barn” built in northern and eastern New England and in nearby portions of Quebec and New Brunswick.6 This group of structures can be defined as any barn that is physically joined to the farmhouse. Several different methods of connecting the separate units, including roofed corridors, a
3 4

E. Alnaes, et al., Norwegian Architecture Throughout the Ages (Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co., 1950), 10. J. Gottham, A Geographic Europe (New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1969), 64. 5 F. Kniffen, “Folk Housing: Key to Diffusion,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 55 (1965): 569. 6 W. Zelinski, “The New England Connecting Barn,” Geographical Review 48 (1958): 549.



short board fence or, more commonly, shared contiguous walls have all been employed in the connecting barn. In each method, the house and barn preserve their independence with separate roofs. Another form of the block farmstead brought to America was one in which house and barn were integrated into a single structure under a common roof. An example of this type is located in what was a predominately German area of Dodge County in east central Wisconsin (see Fig. 3). This Fachewerk or half-timber structure, described in Richard W.E. Perrin’s The Architecture of Wisconsin, was built around 1848.7 Its oaken framework, filled with handmade clay brick, is about 30 by 35 feet in size and was used for the stabling of cattle with a hayloft in its upper story. Horses, swine and sheep were housed separately. The second major European farmstead type, that with detached buildings grouped around a yard, is much more common on the American landscape (see cover photo). Paintings, sketches and photographs of early rural scenes indicate great diversity in buildings positions and site arrangement in this type. Many different factors influenced the form of this type of farmstead including ethnic traditions, natural land features, sources of water, the function of buildings, and even the direction of the prevailing winds.

DEFINING BOUNDARIES While some groups brought to America their traditional Old World methods of building and arranging farm structures, the majority of nineteenth century farmsteads were influenced by the new conditions, trends and styles of a newly burgeoning country.

R. Perrin, The Architecture of Wisconsin (Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1967) 10.



The emerging architectural landscape was being shaped by variations in physical geography, new agricultural practices, and the effect of different land division systems. As a result, the form and size of farms changed as settlement pushed westward. J.B. Jackson, in his book American Space, noted that: The size of farms was increasing, and the further west one traveled, the larger they became. In the forties a farm of 80 acres had been held to be of manageable size for the new farmer in a new region, the homestead of 1862, of 160 acres, was none too large in the Midwest, and the farmer venturing into the Great Plains soon wanted another quarter section.8 One farm improvement manual published in 1913 described the change quite succinctly: In the country that was covered with trees in the eastern part of the United States, small irregular fields were gradually cleared by early settlers… Conditions have now changed. Larger farms and larger fields are needed, and irregular shapes are serious difficulties.9 The land survey system itself had an important impact on American farms. Those areas initially settled by the British and French utilized and division methods that were visibly different from the rectangular land survey system that was later adopted for most of the American landscape. Along the Atlantic seaboard, the character of the terrain, combined with the land apportion methods used by early English settlers, resulted in a patchwork of farms and fields of irregular shapes and sizes. “Each man’s farm consisted of a scatter of such strips and parcels, their number and size depending on the size of his family, the wealth of property he brought with him, or some other measure of his value to the community.”10 Rural areas that were under early French control were divided according to different patterns of ownership by the riparian “long-lot” or rank system. These parcels

8 9

J. Jackson, American Space (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1972) 23. G. Warren, Farm Management (New York: Macmillan Co., 1913) 374-375. 10 J. Hart, The Look of the Land (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1975) 52.



were generally laid out in long, narrow sections adjacent to rivers or lakes in order to allow the maximum number of holdings with access to water transportation or fishing. While quite common in the older parts of French Canada, the system was also used in other areas of early French influence such as Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, and Wisconsin.11 Some of the distinctive land configurations that resulted from this system of land division can still be seen by air. The shape of both the English and French land parcels inevitably influenced the layout of fields and the access, location and siting of farmsteads in a way that differed from the characteristic grid that brought order to most of the American landscape west of the Appalachians. The founding fathers, through a series of acts beginning with the Land Survey Ordinance of 1785, were determined to facilitate the speedy distribution of vast tracts of western land through easily understood uniform definitions, descriptions and methods of location that would secure property rights.12 The square township of thirty-six square mile sections, established from coordinates based on meridians and parallels, resulted in a homogeneous grid which still dominates the appearance of the rural American landscape, especially in the Midwest. In time the homesteads, roads, fields, fences, streets and house lots all found their place in the overall grid. We who fly over the grid landscape see it much more clearly than did those who passed through it by wagon or train. A century ago all that most travelers saw of it was a glimpse of a long, straight country road, slightly wavering between its fences; a perspective of cornfields, wheat fields, and the checkerboard villages and towns. No less characteristic, however, were the widely, evenly spaced farmhouses. Many of these were new, brightly painted, encircled by a picket fence…. The fields were large and often square, but there were remoter countrysides where the forest had only

W. H. Tishler, “The Site Arrangement of Rural Farmsteads,” Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology 10 (1978): 67. 12 H. B. Johnson, Order Upon the Land (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976) 37-50.



recently been removed and log cabins stood on the edge of fields where girdled trees rose above the corn.13 So strong was the imprint of the grid that it often resulted in a monotonous development which completely disregarded topography and other natural features. Some of its strongest critics included a group of the nation’s early landscape architects, including Horace William Shaler Cleveland who wrote in his book, Landscape Architecture as Applied to the Wants of the West published in 1873, that The government system of surveys in public lands formed the only basis of division, the only guide in laying out country roads, or the streets of purposed towns… without regard to topographical features, or facilities of grading or drainage, and still less of any considerations of taste or convenience….14

POSITIONING THE FARMSTEAD The factors which influenced the locational characteristics of the farm plot were not necessarily identical to those which effected the positioning of the farmhouse. The pioneer farmer in the American west would normally have selected his land holding before choosing his farmstead site. “The shape, size, and location of the farm holding would be determined by the settler’s perception of the environment, his judgment of his farming needs, his resources, and the limits imposed upon his choice of land by the competition of farms already established in the same area.”15 The need for social contact with his neighbors might also influence his choice of land. Having chosen a suitable farm area, each pioneer would have located his farmstead within the area of the farm holding

13 14

Jackson, 61-62. H. Cleveland, Landscape Architecture as Applied to the Wants of the West (Chicago: Jansen, McClurg & Co., 1873) 14-15. 15 B. Birch and J. C. Hudson, “On a Theory for Rural Settlement,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 60 (1970): 611.



in a way that would best suit his domestic and operational needs, some of these included access to land and market and availability of water. Another impetus behind the form of rural complexes was the growing body of literature dealing with improved farming techniques. Sometimes these writings expounded the improved qualities of modern farm buildings and supplied guidelines for laying out the farmstead with respect to efficiency and practicality. Perhaps the best know and earliest versions of American agricultural literature were the farm journals, some of which are still published today. The American Farmer, established by John Stuart Skinner in Baltimore in April 1819, was the first farm periodical to become prominent and relatively important.16 As early as 1821, an article entitled “Sketches of Practical Farming” published in American Farmer contained information on farmstead layouts (see Fig. 4 & 5).17 A similar journal, The Agriculturalist, ran an article on the subject of “Laying Out the Farm” in January 1841.18 Later, a variation of handbooks on the subject of farming began to appear. Written to provide information for the practical farmer, they often contained useful materials on the construction and site planning of farm buildings and hints for arranging and beautifying the farmstead. One of the earliest versions, The Farmer’s and Emigrant’s Handbook published in 1845, contained a chapter on farm buildings and a prototype site plan for a complete agricultural operation, house, and grounds.19 The Western Farmer’s New and Universal Handbook of 1856 contained a detailed chapter on rural buildings


W. Rasmussen, Readings in the History of American Agriculture (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1960) 52. 17 J. Tyson, “Sketches of Practical Farming,” American Farmer III (1821): 237. 18 “Laying Out The Farm,” The Agriculturalist II (1841): 1, 3. 19 J. Marshall, The Farmer’s and Emigrant’s Handbook (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1845) 51-101.



with specific siting information for many types of farm structures. For example, it stated that the dairy should be placed conveniently to the house, yet should be apart from any immediate contact with… the farmyard or other impurity. A uniform temperature being also of extreme importance, the site of the structure should be such as to be as little as possible affected by the extremes of either heat or cold… It is recommended by some of the most skillful that the main aspect be open to the north and east; and the building should be shaded, either by walls or by high trees, from the south and west.20 Regarding the arrangement of buildings, it indicated that The most convenient disposition of the outhouses of a farm… is in the form of a long rectangle, or a square, as the case may be, open at one side, -- generally at the south, -- so as to admit the air to the cattle in the yards, and allow sufficient sunshine to them winter.21 In time, agricultural literature became much more sophisticated with respect to farmstead site planning. More landscape architects, architects, and agricultural engineers farm planning and rural development. The agricultural programs of universities and the efforts of the United States Department of Agriculture provided a wealth of written information and even on-site, problem-solving consultation to farmers. Some of the early twentieth century literature became so elaborate that one book even introduced numerically weighted variables for computing various site arrangement factors.22 Farmers’ encyclopedias such as the four volume Farm Knowledge, published by Sears, Roebuck & Company in 1918, provided extensive and detailed information on planning the farmstead layout and included useful data on climatic, topographic, soil, and functional considerations (see Fig. 4).23 An excerpt from it demonstrates the importance

Western Farmer’s New and Universal Handbook (Chicago: Keen & Lee, 1856) 408-409. Ibid., 431. 22 F. Waugh, Rural Improvement (New York: Orange Judd Co., 1914) 143. 23 E. Seymore, Farm Knowledge (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1918).
20 21



of thorough site planning and consideration of climatic factors before the age of air conditioning: It is not advisable to locate the farm group between hills… because of “trapped air”; the group must have a free air current. A valley generally lacks air drainage as well as water drainage. Cold air will settle between hills. The night temperature in a valley is always colder than at a location where there is more circulation. Further, in warm weather, valley air becomes very sultry….24

By the end of World War I, new and dramatic forces were beginning to reshape American agriculture. This evolution was reflected in the form and spatial organization of the countryside and of the farmstead. Our nation had become the world’s leading industrial and agricultural power. A victim of its own success, the traditional family farm began to decline along with decreasing farm prices and other economic and social trends. Folk architecture and vernacular innovation began to change with the advent of new technologies that enabled the mass production and consumption of barbed wire, the metal windmill, and the gasoline powered tractor and made possible projects like rural electrification. The number and type of structures in the rural complex began to decrease as the smoke house, root cellar, ice house, woodshed, outhouse, brick oven, springhouse, corn crib, and kitchen house became obsolete. The observer of today’s rural countryside finds change running rampant. Everywhere, the familiar features of the farming landscape are disappearing as big agribusiness and hordes of city dwellers flock to control more rural land. If present trends continue, it is not difficult to predict the future implications of this change: the continuing decrease in the number of family farms; the low silhouette of the industrialized farmstead (“where mobile machinery and electric power have greatly encouraged a horizontal

Ibid., III: 307-308.



layout and the consequent abandonment of many vertical buildings”);25 and the architectural monotony of standardized, prefabricated barns, sheds and silos. If we loose the visible reminders of our agricultural heritage, we will have lost an important part of ourselves and our roots to the land.


J. Jackson. “Metamorphosis,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 62 (1972): 157.



FIGURE 1. A New Hampshire connecting barn farm group from 1805, from an article written for Landscape Architecture (1917) by landscape architect Arthur A. Shurtleff.



FIGURE 2. A connected farm complex with multiple outbuildings and additions. Fryeburg, Maine. From Thomas C. Hubka, Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New England (2004). Photo by Kurt Brown.

FIGURE 3. An example of a German half-timbered combination house and barn under one roof: the Langlholff barn near Watertown, Wisconsin. Photo by Richard W.E. Perrin (Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin).



FIGURE 4. A recommended quadrangular farmstead arrangement from Frank A. Waugh, Rural Improvement (New York, 1914).

FIGURE 5. A schematic ideal farmstead layout from E.L.D. Seymore, ed., Farm Knowledge, vol. III (Doubleday, Page & Co., 1918). CREATING AN AMERICAN FARMSCAPE 13

Alnaes, E., et al., Norwegian Architecture Throughout the Ages. Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co., 1950. Birch, B. and Hudson, J. C. “On a Theory for Rural Settlement.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 60 (1970): 611. Cleveland, H. Landscape Architecture as Applied to the Wants of the West. Chicago: Jansen, McClurg & Co., 1873. Gottham, John. A Geographic Europe. New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1969. Hart, John Fraser. The Look of the Land. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1975. Jackson, John B. American Space. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1972) 23. ---. “Metamorphosis.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 62 (1972): 157.

Johnson, Hildegard Binder Order Upon the Land. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Kniffen, Fred. “Folk Housing: Key to Diffusion.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 55 (1965): 569. “Laying Out The Farm.” The Agriculturalist II (1841): 1, 3. Marshall, J. The Farmer’s and Emigrant’s Handbook. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1845. Perrin, Richard W.E. The Architecture of Wisconsin. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1967. Rasmussen, Wayne D. Readings in the History of American Agriculture. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1960. Seymore, E. Farm Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1918. The National Trust for Historic Preservation. America’s Forgotten Architecture. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. Tishler, William H. “The Site Arrangement of Rural Farmsteads.” Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology 10 (1978): 67. Trewartha, Glenn T. “Some Regional Characteristics of American Farmsteads.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 38 (1948): 169-225.



Tyson, J. “Sketches of Practical Farming.” American Farmer III (1821): 237. Warren, George F. Farm Management. New York: Macmillan Co., 1913. Waugh, Frank A. Rural Improvement. New York: Orange Judd Co., 1914. Western Farmer’s New and Universal Handbook. Chicago: Keen & Lee, 1856. Zelinski, W. “The New England Connecting Barn,” Geographical Review 48 (1958): 549.