The wonders, and the workings, of the Round Stone Barn

The Round Stone Barn, the most notable Hancock Shaker Village building, is the first and only Shaker barn of its kind. Widely recognized as an architectural icon and agricultural wonder, this monumental barn was built in 1826. Its circular design was a model of efficiency and a curiosity to Shakers and "the world's people" alike, including farmers and progressive thinkers, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, who staged a foot race in the structure. The elegant beauty of its simple form and details typify Shaker design. The barn was a center of community activity attracting visitors since its construction.

This unique dairy barn was built to replace an earlier barn that was destroyed by fire on Dec. 1, 1864. The early morning fire burned so hot that some portions of the stone were converted into lime. The cause was initially unknown, but within a week, the Shakers came to believe it was the work of an arsonist. The loss of the barn, adjoining sheds, 100 tons of hay, eight bushels of provender and six wagons contained within was estimated to amount to $10,000. It was a tremendous financial blow to the community.

Elder Phidelio Collins wrote, "Even this great calamity did not discourage [Shaker Village trustee] Ira R Lawson. He soon had Jacob Stewart of Pittsfield engaged to make out a bill of timber to rebuild with. At that time, we owned a lot of timber land on Washington mountain (12 miles east of our village) and Simon Mabee, a brother some over 60 years, went and superintended cutting and sawing lumber till the bill was mad[e] out. And as soon as spring opened, Jacob Stewart and a lot of other men began to frame the timber, and before July they had the barn reared and covered ready to put hay in."

The design of the Round Stone Barn has been attributed to Hancock brother Daniel Goodrich Jr. or William Deming, but cannot be assigned with certainty to anyone. It offers ground-level access on all three levels. The upper-level balcony, spanning 75 feet in diameter, was used to unload hay; the central level to store hay, and house and feed cattle; and the lower level to store manure until it could be transported to the gardens and used as fertilizer.

The Round Stone Barn is comprised of four rings. The innermost ring, also the smallest, is used for ventilation. This ventilation is necessary to help draw the moisture up and out of the hay, which prevents mold from growing and the hay from eventually spontaneously combusting. In the second ring, hay was stored. It was unloaded into a wooden lined storage area from the uppermost level accessible by ox-drawn wagon via a ramp outdoors. The Brethren would drive the empty wagons around the circular barn floor and exit the same door they came in, eliminating the potentially dangerous activity of backing wagons out of a barn.

One level down, the third ring out was where the Shaker brothers would walk to distribute the hay from the second ring to the cows. The cows would go to the barn twice a day: once in the morning and once in the evening to be milked.

In the fourth ring, 50 or more cattle were kept in wooden stanchions, posts used to secure the animals, which radiated outward from a central manger. The cows stabled on the main floor faced inward toward the haymow for ease of feeding. Standing there, the cows could eat while the brothers milked them. The floor of the outermost ring is split level, with the inner part raised up three inches. This was so that the milk buckets were not on the same level as the manure, which was unsanitary. In addition to separating the milk from manure, the Shakers developed a way of both efficiently removing the manure from the complex and using it for compost. Approximately every four feet around the outermost ring, there is a trapdoor that was used to quickly scoop the manure on the floor into the cellar beneath the barn. The storage area was accessible by wagon in order to transport the manure to their gardens.

As described by "H.C." in the New York Farmer and reprinted in The Genesee Farmer (Vol. V, No. 49, December, 1835):

"The great object of agricultural curiosity at Hancock, is their magnificent stone barn, two stories in height and 96 feet in diameter. The great mow is in the centre, and is said to be capable of containing between three and four hundred tons of hay. The floor or driveway is on the outside of the circle, and the team goes round and comes out at the same door at which it enters. Several teams can stand on the floor and be unloaded at the same time. In the centre of this mow a large post or mast is erected, reaching from tho ground to the roof. At the apex of the roof is a small cupola. Around this post, slats or strips of plank are placed at a small distance from it, to prevent the hay from coming in immediate contact, and the hay at the bottom, being raised by an open frame from the ground, a perfect ventilation is formed, and the steam from the new hay is in this way effectually carried off."

The original barn, with its tall, conical roof, provided ample overhead space for men and animals. Elder Collins wrote, "We soon found by getting in hay that we had mad[e] a great mistake in not raising the central part over the hay in order to give more room for hay and to avoid thumping our heads against the rafters. However, we soon improved that mistake by getting levers and screws and raising the roof over the hay, which is 60 feet in diameter, and building a loft under the roof. In doing this, it gave a chance to put in windows all around the circle, which lights the barn almost in every part. The next improvement of the round barn was to dig a cellar under the stabling and drop the manure into the cellar, which proves to be an untold improvement. In order to do this, there had to be a circular wall built under the timbers that support the central part to the bottom of the cellar and another wall reaching half way or more under the outside wall. And in 1883 the round barn was finished to perfection by building over the bridgeway and doorers where we go in with hay a cellar to keep roots in this cellar is level with the cattle on the same loft or floor."

During 1866, the Shakers rebuilt the milking stalls on the first floor of the barn, installing new floor joists, planking, and reconstructing the manger. In June 1870, the earthen ramp leading to the second floor, or loft, of the barn was rebuilt.

Due to the excavation of the manure pit under the barn around 1880, the walls of the structure began to settle. By 1930, large through-cracks opened up in the masonry, and the barn was in danger of slow collapse. In 1968, Hancock Shaker Village carefully dismantled the masonry walls, and shored up the foundations — leaving the timber-frame structure intact. Once new foundations were laid, the masonry walls were rebuilt using the original stones. A paint analysis in 2008 revealed the exterior woodwork of the barn was painted yellow when the Shakers reconstructed it after the 1864 fire. In 2009, the paint was restored to its original color.

The Shakers maintained a working dairy farm at Hancock into the 1950s. Many girls raised by the Shakers recalled with joy exploring the structure, and even jumping into the hay mow from the loft. When you visit the Round Stone Barn today, you learn about the Shakers' progressive agricultural practices, as well as the construction and history of the structure. The museum's working farm program houses animals in the Dairy Ell, which extends off the Round Stone Barn, and the round portion of the barn is filled with heritage breeds of lambs, piglets and calves during the village's annual Baby Animals on the Shaker Farm celebration each spring.

Maribeth Cellana is the communications manager at Hancock Shaker Village.


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