Fulton County historian Shirley Willard calls round barns the “cathedrals” of the countryside. They are symbols of a bygone time in Indiana agriculture when farmers combined form, function and aesthetics.

Their heyday was 1890 to 1915. Agricultural experts of the day advocated round barns as efficient and economical. Architect Benton Steele of Pendleton advertised them as “the cheapest and best from every standpoint” with their “ordinary joist frame construction, assisted by the new bending system.”

Indiana has long claimed the title “round-barn capital” of the nation with more round barns than any other state.

From 1985 to 1988, the Indiana Round-Barn Survey identified 226 structures in Indiana. Since then, tornadoes, fire and aging have claimed more than half. As of 2015, 95 to 100 were still standing, Willard said.

The largest grouping is in Fulton, Marshall, Miami and Kosciusko counties. John T. Hanou, author of “A Round Indiana,” attributes the cluster to the experience and reputation of a single builder, C.V. Kindig and Sons, who put up almost all of the houses, barns, sheds and corn cribs in three of those four counties.

In Marshall County, the Leland family built three almost identical barns with 12 sides and central silos. Farmer John Leland could do so himself because his brother was a carpenter.

George Washington is believed to have built the first round barn in the United States in 1792, actually a 16-sided barn used as a treading mill to thresh grain.

The Shakers were known for circular barns starting in the 1820s, the designs serving as a metaphor for life in the community. The top level served as a gathering place and hay room. On the main floor, livestock were kept in stanchions radiating out from a central grain bin, and hay could be dropped from the level above.

Today, both polygonal and circular barns are considered round barns, but they are not the same. The perfect circle developed later as the result of balloon framing, an engineering advance that allowed for self-supporting roofs.

For several decades, Fulton County preservationists have been at the forefront of a movement to save round barns from extinction.

In 1989, Larry Paxton donated his round barn, damaged by a tornado, to the Fulton County Historical Society, which moved and restored it at its current location along U.S. 31 four miles north of Rochester. In its second life as a museum, the barn displays early 20th-century farm vehicles and implements.

In August 2015, heavy winds from a probable tornado tore off the barn’s roof and damaged much of its contents, yet another reminder of the vulnerability of these hallowed structures. Insurance did not pay enough, so donations to rebuild and repair the barn and other historic buildings on the site are needed.

In 1990, the society founded the National Round-Barn Center of Information to keep track of the round barns in the United States and look for potential investors of those in danger.

“While many round barns have been lost, several new ones have been built, including a horse training barn near Lafayette,” Willard notes with pride.

For her and so many others in north central Indiana, saving round barns is a labor of love. “They’re so beautiful. When you see one, you just say, ‘Oh my goodness.’”

If you go

The Fulton County Historical Society and Museum is on U.S. 31, four miles north of Rochester.

At a glance

A damaged round barn was donated to the Fulton County Historical Society, and it was restored and moved to U.S. 31, four miles north of Rochester, to serve as a museum.

The barn was damaged in an August storm. Donations to rebuild and repair the barn and other historic buildings on the site are needed.

Checks can be sent to Fulton County Historical Society, 37 E. County Road 375N, Rochester, IN, 46975.

This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December 2016. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.