Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lewis Round Barn and Museum in the Village of Mendon in Adams County, Illinois.

Charles E. Lewis determined that he needed a large barn with which to house and feed his 200 beef cattle and like number of hogs. He learned of the three experimental round barns built in about 1900 for the University of Illinois, College of Agriculture. 
Lewis Round Barn and Museum.
Being impressed with the efficiency of the round barn, as compared with the square or oblong structures, but realizing he needed a barn much larger than the University of Illinois buildings, he began to envision a structure that would be much larger than any round barn that had been built up to that time in the Mid-West and perhaps in the entire country.

The first step was the selection of 40 acres of timber ground from the 160 acre “Grove Place” recently purchased from his father’s estate.
Much of the 40 acres was thick with large elm, oak, hackberry and sugar maple trees. The next step was setting up a portable sawmill and hiring several men to cut the trees with axes and two-man cross-cut saws. During the fall and winter of 1911 the logs were worked up into dimensional lumber and then carefully piled to air dry.

Lambert Huber, a local skilled carpenter of German ancestry, was hired as the architect, engineer and building foreman. He had never built a round barn but he was willing to undertake the complicated project. The roof was to be a self-supporting dome without any supporting structure except the outside walls. The four-section rafters were to be reinforced at each of the joints. After the barn was built, Mr. Huber said he lost many hours of sleep trying to figure out the many specifications, but also how many parts were to be built and put into place. He was heard to say that he thought the completed barn was a total success, but the he would never build another one. 
By the summer of 1914, the lumber was sufficiently cured and construction commenced. Ditches were dug for the poured concrete foundation footings to support the outer circular wall. A circle 24 feet in diameter was laid out in the center in order to accommodate the silo and silage feeding bunk around the silo.

A stave silo 18 feet in diameter and 40 feet high was constructed out of one-piece 40 Douglas Fir staves that were totally clear of knots. They were the longest pieces of clear lumber Uncle Carl Lewis had ever seen. A wooden stave silo, sheltered inside a barn and away from weather and sun, was one of the longest lasting and best keeper of silage of any structures known up to that time and for many years thereafter.

The siding for the barn was 1' x 12” white pine, 14 to 16 feet long and wood shingles were of western red cedar. The shingles and siding were the only lumber that had to be purchased. The rest came from trees grown and sawed at the Grove. The cash outlay for the barn was $2,000… a hefty sum in those days (today $48,635)

Concrete pillars were poured into holes dug in the ground foundations of the 6 x 6” posts which supported the circular haymow constructed completely around the silo extending out to the tip exterior wall.
The next step was to build the dome-shaped roof by assembling the rafters on the mow floor, then putting them into place was a big problem. Each rafter was at least 50 feet in length and made of very heavy hardwood lumber. A scaffold of about 46 feet was constructed upwards from the haymow floor and a 10 foot in diameter laminated wooden circular ring was constructed at the carpenter’s shop in Camp Point and placed on top of the scaffold. Each of the rafters were to be raised somehow, but manpower proved insufficient.

One of grandfather’s favorite horses; namely, "Old Kit,” came to the rescue and with an innovate series of ropes, pulleys, and a boom pole, the horse was used for power to lift the rafters into place. It was said that Uncle Dana provided the steady hand that led Old Kit, as the rafters were raised, one by one. As each rafter was raised into place, they were nailed fast to the top ring.

As the first three or four rafters were placed in different locations on opposites sides, the whole affair was pretty flimsy, so all involved hoped there would be no high winds until all of the rafters were raised and the roof sheathing was nailed into place. No winds came and at that point, the structure was crowned with a 10 foot high cupola roof supported by the highest lip of the lightening rod. It was topped off by a weather vane of a steer said to be covered with old leaf.

A few months before the barn was completed a group of wives of farmers organized a pioneering club they named “The Rural Mother’s Household Science Club.” They asked Grandfather Lewis if they could hold a Barn warmin’ in the new barn on Halloween as their first major project. Each member brought four pumpkin pies and two dozen doughnuts, and a square dance was held. Folks came from miles around, whether invited or not. Most came by horse and buggy, and only a few by car. The Model T had not as yet been developed. Since there was no electricity, kerosene lanterns were used to light the big barn. The party was a great success. Almost eighty–five years later a “guest register” of those who attended was discovered in the haymow on three panels of the inside of the outer wall of the barn. Those fifty inscribed signatures can still be seen today in the relocated barn.

The round barn served its purpose well for many years. Silage was thrown down out of two sets of silo doors onto the silage bunks below, and hay from the haymow could be forked down into hay racks lining the inside of the outside wall. Cattle could feast on silage by facing toward the center, then turn around and walk to the hay racks. Hogs had special restricted openings to enter the barn and eat corn and sleep in protected areas where the cattle were to large to gain access.

In the late 1950’s or early 1960’s the weight of the cupola caused the roof to start sagging and leaning like the Tower of Pisa. So it was removed and the hole left at the top was shingled over. Time began to take its toll. The entire roof was re-shingled, and more recently the five Lewis brothers and cousin Jim Andrews held a working weekend to make repairs. Part of the barn had to be jacked up, a major foundation buttress had to be replaced with new concrete, the window openings were covered with Plexiglas, and a new cable was installed around the outside of the barn, up under the eaves to the roof to prevent the barn from further spreading.

While these efforts were successful, they could only be short-term Band-Aids and if the barn was to continue to live for another century, the family decided to donate the barn to the Adams County Olde Tyme Association. They proposed moving the barn and fully restoring it on a site about 25 miles to the West near the Adams County Fair grounds.

The barn, having been placed on the National Register of Historic Places of August 16, 1984, was considered by both the State of Illinois and the National Preservation groups to be of such importance, that a grant of $150,000 was given to the Olde Tyme Association by the Illinois Historical Preservation Agency for the moving and restoration project.

Most everyone who learned the Association believed the barn could be successfully moved, felt that Association needed the services of a psychiatrist. The task of now taking the barn apart and re-erecting it seemed more impossible than its original construction.

Early in 2000 plans were made to give the Round Barn a new and lasting revival. A contract was awarded to a group of Amish carpenters and the work began. Two sets of old shingles were peeled off. Chain saws were used to cut the roof into many narrow pie-shaped pieces. The haymow and the outside wall were dismounted and moved to the new site. This left the silo standing like a lonesome ghost in the middle of the old site.

The Association contracted for a crane to pick up the entire silo and lay it down horizontally on a flat-bed trailer. A heavy duty farm tractor then began to pull the silo down the hill on the way our of the Lewis Farm. As the tractor started up the hill, the silo threatened to collapse inwardly, so the tractor stopped near a tree and the silo was tied off by chains to the tree overnight until the Amish could reinforce the silo’s bracing. The next day, the tractor and silo slowly meandered over graveled country roads to its new resting place. The State of Illinois would not permit the silo to travel on concrete State highways.

The Amish then started to re-erect the outside walls but this time the wind did blow the walls down before they could be stabilized and had to be re-erected again. When some of the first rafters also blew down, only the most optimistic would have continued. But the project had gone much too far to quit, and from then on the construction went smoothly. The roof was finished off with a new cover of shingles and a replica cupola was installed on top. Success at Last!

Adams County Olde Tyme Association Lewis Round Barn Museum.
In 1999 the Lewis family donated it to the Olde Tyme Association. The museum houses antique farm implements and hand tools on the lower level.
The loft is dedicated to the farm woman's life in the 1930s with a 3 room house, beauty shop, grocery store, garden area, rug looms, quilting and much more.
The barn is an architectural wonder being built before modern tools and equipment were available and amazing in that it was moved 20 miles. 

The Lewis Round Barn was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002 as a private Agriculture Outbuilding not in use. Then in 2003 it was re-registered as Recreation and Culture Museum.

by George J Lewis and edits by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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