Wooden-frame structures are among the oldest made by human beings for physical shelter, storage of goods, and protection of livestock. Immigrants from the forested regions of western and northern Europe brought traditions of building with wood to North America in successive waves of immigration from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. Pioneer settlement of the Great Plains by Americans, Canadians, and European immigrants occurred from the 1850s to the 1920s, just as new American industries directly facilitated the construction of wooden buildings.
After about 1870, steam-powered sawmills in the upper Midwest were mass-producing building materials for wooden-frame structures, supplanting low-production lumber mills powered by local streams and rivers. Beginning in the 1830s eastern manufacturers produced iron nails, and by the 1890s wire steel nails were available. Transport of these construction materials on navigable waterways, mainly the Missouri, supplied major distribution centers in the region. Then, after 1860, railroad lines diffused building materials to new communities throughout the Great Plains. Every fledgling railroad town on the Plains had its lumberyard.
European American settlers often followed traditional methods of building learned in eastern Canada and the United States or in Europe. Timber-frame structures were typically composed of eight-by-eight-inch corner posts, three-by-five-inch studs, and four-by-four- inch rafters. Builders used hand tools to prepare each unit of the frame according to proportionate size and scale, finished the units with appropriate mortise-and-tenon cuts, and joined sections of the frame with these joints. Timber-frame structures required at least one year for the thick members of the frame to cure, weeks for skilled carpenters to cut joints, and a crew of five to six workers to set sections of the frame in place. Plains settlers used this framing technique for houses, inns, commercial buildings, and larger outbuildings on farms, especially barns.
Braced-frame structures were used for buildings of two or more stories such as stores, warehouses, and imposing dwellings. A braced-frame structure consisted of moderate- size milled-lumber members of six-by-six- inch posts, two-by-six-inch studs, and two-by-four-inch rafters. Posts and studs were usually mortised into a heavy sill and plate and, like other sections of the frame, nailed in place. To reinforce the structure, carpenters installed a diagonal brace at the top and bottom of the frame at each corner of the external wall. This method of framing satisfied conservative builders' preferences for a strong timber frame while taking advantage of some of the e.ciencies of building with milled lumber and nails.
Balloon-frame construction developed when dimension lumber became available throughout the region during the 1860s. A balloon-frame structure is composed of light-weight four-by-four-inch corner posts, two-by- four-inch studs, and two-by-four-inch rafters nailed together at every joint, creating a basketlike network of components that reinforce and strengthen each other in an integrated series of structural relations. Balloon-frame buildings are identified by an uninterrupted rise of the two-by-four-inch vertical studs nailed to the sill at the foundation and to the plate at the top. Studs are doubled at the corners and at door and window openings to reinforce these sections of the frame. The interval between each stud is sixteen inches on center in order to receive forty-eight-inchlong lath used as support for the interior plaster walls and ceilings. Door and window openings are usually thirty-two inches wide to preserve the sixteen-inch spacing of the studs. Carpenters nail floor joists measuring two by eight inches or two by ten inches to the studs along the exterior side walls. First-story joists are positioned on the sill; second-story joists are supported by a horizontal ledger or ribbon that is nailed to the vertical studs. In order to stiffen these parts, builders nail diagonal bridging between each joist. A subfloor layer of rough boards of one by eight inches, surfaced with one-by-six-inch clear pine boards or narrow strips of hardwood, serves as the flooring. Builders enclose the exterior of the frame with a layer of one-by-eight-inch to one-by-ten-inch boards and cover that sheathing with shiplap siding. Rafters measuring two by six inches or two by four inches, nailed to the plate at twenty-four-inch intervals, are covered with roof boards and surfaced with shingles made of wood or asphalt.
Wall and roof surfaces of balloon-frame structures enclose a rectangular space covered by a saddle roof or a square space spanned by a pyramidal roof. Elevations of balloon-frame houses vary from one to two and a half stories. Scale ranges from simple one- or two-room structures to elaborate asymmetrical extensions of enclosed spaces. This type of wooden frame best suits the needs for economical houses and the skills of local carpenters and builders. Balloon-frame commercial structures that fit narrow business lots can rise from one to three stories and are shaped as extended rectangles spanned by a saddle roof. This sloping roofline is usually concealed by a false-front street facade that rises to the full height of the structure and is crowned with a horizontal cornice the full width of the facade to give the impression of a building constructed according to traditional classical design.
See also INDUSTRY: Lumberyards.
Fred W. Peterson University of Minnesota, Morris
Peterson, Fred W. Homes in the Heartland: Balloon Frame Farmhouses of the Upper Midwest, 1850–1920. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.
Rempel, John I. Building with Wood and Other Aspects of Nineteenth-Century Building in Central Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.
Upton, Dell. "Traditional Timber Framing." In Material Culture of the Wooden Age, edited by Brooke Hindle. Tarrytown NY: Sleepy Hollow Press, 1981: 33–96.