Whether during the hey day of their construction in the early 1900s or now, round barns have always attracted public attention. If curiosity about an architectural oddity is the reason most people initially stop to look at a round barn, the striking aesthetics of these buildings is surely what brings them back. Something about these barns instantly draws the eye, and from inside the attraction is even more intense. Soaring, converging rafters; muted lighting; and the graceful, circular tracks that once distributed hay bring to mind feelings of cathedral awe. - James Shortridge - "The Round Barns of Kansas"
Barns are officially named for the original owner or the original owner and the current owner. You will see it both ways. The Foley / Reece barn was the first of only five round barns built in Kansas by Benton Steele, the foremost designer, builder and promoter of round barns at the time. It is one of only nineteen pure round barns built in the state. Only 2 of the 5 Benton Steele barns remain standing. The other is the Drennon / Stump Barn near Blue Rapids. The Foley / Reece Barn is the only round barn in Sedgwick County. Turning one hundred years old this year, the Foley / Reece Barn has become an iconic landmark in the area. The two-pitched gambrel roof was first done by Benton Steele and Isaac McNamee in Indiana in 1901. It was said to be the “ideal circular barn”’ The round design with the “self supporting conical roof” was said to be stronger, less expensive and more efficient than traditional rectangular barns. Round barns were also promoted as labor saving for the owners. Livestock could be fed from the central silo with fewer steps. The hay mow on the upper level has a track system for unloading and delivering hay to any part of the barn. Hay wagons would pull up the ramp and unload directily into the barn. Round barns took extraordinarily skilled carpenters to construct them. These barns were very innovative and a radical change in barn building practices at the time. The period of the most prolific round barn building was very short-lived from about 1900 to 1915. These majestic barns are disappearing at an alarming rate, many have been razed, burned or collapsed in just the last twenty years. The overall rarity, scarcity, uniqueness and aesthetically pleasing nature of round barns make them a very special piece of rural American history and an example of agricultural and architectural innovation of the early part of the 20th century.
Born out of experimentation, engineering and imagintation, round barns were built to increase the efficiency and economic capabilities of farmers. Several factors led to the acceptance and popularity of the round barn. These factors are: 1.The use of balloon framing on agricultural buildings; 2. engineering research involving the balloon frame that created truly self-supported roofs; 3. The interior layout made possible by the development of the circular silo. 4. The financial means to construct barns. 5. An information network that informed the farmer of these new innovations. These information networks were a new and important advancement for farmers and ranchers. Publications dedicated to the needs of farmers were thriving and now available to all but the most remote farmsteads. Farm journals were established as clearinghouses of information, much in the same way a newspaper is intended to objectively and honestly edify the public. In some instances however, farm journals issued a virtual endorsement of trends. Benton Steele would come to have a great impact on the popularity of round barns, partly due to the many ads and articles he placed in agricultural publications such as The Indiana Farmer and the Breeder’s Gazette and perhaps more importantly, from the endorsements his barns received from the state experimental stations, which were considered by most to be the final authority on agricultural innovations. Round barns were most popular among dairy farmers in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconson and Indiana, where agricultural experimental station promotion programs were strong.
The Round Barn Movement began in earnest in Indiana where Benton Steele got his start and where he had the most impact on the proliferation of round barns. In 1901, Steele established a name for himself by building an 80 foot diameter barn for a prominent Warren County banker (now razed). Steele's next commission would be the design and construction of a 100-foot diameter barn for Congressman Wymond. This Dearborn County barn (extant), was the largest round barn in the state at the time and along with the previously mentioned Warren County barn, were the first known true-circular barns with double-pitched, self-supported roofs (the same design used on the Foley / Reece barn). As exemplified by the stature and position of his clinetelle, Steele’s barns came to represent progress, and status among farmers and other land owners. In 1902, Isaac McNamee, Benton Steele and Horace Duncan designed and built a 102-foot diameter barn in Hancock County, Indiana. The owner was Frank L. Littleton, a prominent Indianapolis attorney and State Legislator, who, in a friendly rivalry wanted the largest round barn in the state. When completed, the 102-foot structure would remain the largest ever constructed in Indiana and still stands today in near perfect condition on its original site. In June of 1902, tornadoes devastated the Warrington and Pendleton areas but the Whisler barn that Steele built in Hancock County (1901) survived, and thereafter round barns were even dubbed "Cyclone-proof". Littleton, Isaac McNamee and Horace Duncan submitted the documentation for a patent on their Improvements to the Self-Supported Conical Roof which they were granted in 1905. Interestingly, Steele was not included in the patent After the patent was issued without Steele, his relationship with Duncan and the rest, deteriorated to the point that Steele left Indiana for Sedgwick, Kansas in 1909. In 1910, Steele built his first Kansas round barn in Sedgwick County for W.C. Foley (the Foley / Reece barn). Steele went on to build four more round barns in Kansas and spent the rest of his days here.
Round barns came into existance becuase agriculture was quickly becoming more of a business that needed to be efficiently run to maximize potential profits. This “Golden Age” of agriculture was a time that transformed American agriculture from a traditional folk activity into an economically efficient and thereby “progressive” component of the nation’s rapidly maturing capitalistic system. The round barn, in fact, is one of the most appropriate symbols for this heady, self-confident era and a great marker of a particularly innovative time in American agricultural history.
The Foley / Reece barn was designed and built by Benton Steele in 1910 as a dairy barn. In 1945, then owner Charles Davis added two long, gable-roofed wings to the north and south. Each wing is aproximately 30 X 75 wood framed with fieldstone on the front. These wings enabled the dairy operation to further expand. In 1960 Dr.Richard and Imogene Fleming bought the barn and converted it to a series of non-farm uses. The milk room on the south end of the south wing was converted into a clinic for Dr. Fleming's medical practice. For many years, this clinic was the only medical facility in the area and many of the older area residents recall coming out to the barn to see Dr. Fleming. The south wing was converted into an antique shop for Dr. Flemings wife, Imogene (former Ms. Senior Kansas), and the north wing was turned into a meeting facility. The Round Barn itself was used for parties, dances and other large events. Later, the south wing and the clinic were converted to residential housing. In recent years, the Derby Community Foundation has had very successful fund raising events in the round barn with annual attendance of about 300 people. From the air, the round barn with its two long wings has the look of a large red propeller and it is said that local pilots use the barn as a navigational landmark. With the unique and striking appearance of the round barn and all the various things the barn has been used for over the years, the round barn has become a well known and much loved icon of the community.
SPRCIAL THANKS TO JOHNNY STEELE - Benton Steele's grandson FOR THE PHOTOGRAPHS AND THE GREAT HELP HE HAS BEEN TO US.
1. Round Barns of Kansas - James Shortridge -
2. Soike, Lowell J. Without Right Angles, The Round Barns of Iowa. Des Moines, IA: Iowa State
Historical Department, Office of Historic Preservation, 1983.
3. http://www.in.gov/dnr/historic/files/roundbarns.pdf NPS Form 10-900-b OMB no.1024-0018 (Jan 1987)
4. Fromme-Birney “Round Barn” website http://skywayss.lib.ks.us/orgs/barns/roundbarn/
5. The Barn Journal website http://www.thebarnjournal.org/round/efficiency.html