10 Surprising Facts About Historic Barns in Washtenaw County

Sep 23, 2016

Washtenaw County's Driving Tour of 19th and 20th Century Barns opens your eyes to beautiful structures that have stood the test of time. You can take a driving tour for yourself, or visit the tour virtually by clicking here. Keep reading to learn more about Washtenaw County's Historic Barns. 




1. Barns are Red for a Reason. 
Homemade paint dyes were limited to local resources.  “Oxblood” red has traditionally been a common color choice. Farmers would seal their barns with an orange colored linseed oil, which was made red with the addition of rust or ferrous oxide, to prevent mold.  Rust has anti-fungal qualities that keep wood from rotting. 


2. Silos have a long history of exploding. 
This common barn accessory structure is used as storage for fermented grain used to feed livestock over the winter.  Fermentation created gases that could build up over time – and even EXPLODE!


3. How do you keep corn from molding or accidentally becoming moonshine? 
Corn cribs! These small structures are built of wooden slats, raised above the ground like an inverted trapezoid, and keep the corn dry, ventilated, and off the ground.  High ceilings draw moisture up and out, and tilted walls shed water down and away from the corn.


4. Head for the White Arches.
Farm work lasts late into the night.  The bright white color accents and arches on red barns helped famers locate the barn in the dark. The white accents proved to be a beacon in the night.


5. Haven’t I seen that barn somewhere before? 
Barns were often moved or repurposed.  It is not uncommon for portions of barn to be saved and reused in new construction.  The Dickerson Barn in Salem Township has hand- hewn oak timbers from the 1830s, while the barn itself was constructed years later in c.1850.


6. Dirty Jobs?  Indeed! 
Farmers have the 6th most dangerous job in the United States.  270 die a year, 15% of them in silos. Yikes! Current safety practice for inside silo work is to wear an oxygen re-breather (like a scuba diver) to prevent asphyxiation.


7.  Disappearing Act.
In 1920 there were more than 4,000 farms in Washtenaw County.  By 2012, there were only 1,236 farms left in operation.  A few farms remain in traditional production.  Others are adapted for special uses such as horse boarding and riding instruction, landscape business, cider mill or use as an event space like Zingerman’s Cornman Farms.


8. How does a cow go upstairs? She doesn’t! 
Many barns are built an embankment that serves as a ramp for cattle or other livestock to moooove in and out.  Livestock can enter on the lower level for milking or shelter, or be herded to the other side, up a ramp, to enter the upper level.


9. The elder statesman, the Gable Roof. 
Gable roofs are a simple peak roof, typical in barns from early settlement until the Civil War.  Later barns feature Gambrel roofs, which provide more room for hay storage, a key feature when many farms shifted to dairy production in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This second type is commonly known as a “barn roof.”   


10.  See them for yourself – jump in the car or hop on your bike!
Reward yourself for your extra efforts at the Dairy Queen in Manchester Village, or plan to stop for a picnic at Washtenaw County’s Sharon Mills Park.

The Washtenaw County Historic Barn Heritage Tour covers more than 100 travel miles from downtown Ypsilanti and back.  There are 17 barns on the historic barn tour – but so many more to see along the way!  To give it a try visit, www.ewashtenaw.org/heritagetours. And if you see one of these barns for yourself, use the hashtag #VisitAnnArbor to share it with us!

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