Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Farmsteads, varying in form and function, are one of the most important components of the Great Plains landscape. The open, relatively treeless land and extreme climate of the Great Plains greatly affected the design of farmsteads built by the first generation of European American homesteaders. Since most homesteaders had little money, they used readily available materials such as stone, mud, and sod to construct a shelter to live in while they proved their claim. Homesteaders typically built small, rectangular (ten by twelve feet was a common size), single-story, one-room shacks or dugouts in a hillside. Livestock shelters were often lean-tos attached to the house or simple structures located a short distance away from the shack or dugout.

Many ethnic groups used architectural styles and building materials common to their homelands in their new farms. For example, Ukrainians in east-central Alberta built clay-plastered log homes with a three-bay plan of two rooms on either side of a main hallway. These features and details such as a large clay oven (pich) and a low sloping berm (pryzba) built along the base of outer walls to shed water were taken directly from farmhouses in the Galicia and Bukovyna districts of the Ukraine, the previous home of these settlers. Danish immigrants in southeastern South Dakota made bricks from Missouri River bottomland clay to build structures similar to the ones they had left behind in Denmark. Their farmhouses had distinctive arched window-top trim, and they built T-shaped barns with space for horses, cows, and grain or hay storage.

Once settlers proved claims and decided to stay and farm, they needed to expand and improve shelters for their means of production, products, and families. This second stage of farmstead construction coincided with the scientific farming movement from the late 1880s to the early 1920s. Institutions dedicated to agriculture such as government agencies, colleges, regional fairs, and farm journals and newspapers formed during this period promoted enhanced technology, beautification, efficiency, safety, and hygiene in all areas of farm operation. Circulars from agencies such as the United States Department of Agriculture and assorted state university agricultural experiment stations covered topics such as farmyard layouts and building details that could improve livestock health by increasing ventilation and sunlight in a barn.

The second-generation farmstead complex of this era usually consisted of a farmhouse, a large main barn, and smaller outbuildings like machine sheds and shelters for specific groups of livestock such as chicken coops and swine barns. Sometimes the original claim shack was incorporated into the new farmhouse or reused as an outbuilding. Ethnic building techniques and details largely disappeared as farmers covered over dirt and log walls with clapboard siding. Balloon frames of dimension lumber replaced sod, earth, stone, and log walls in new construction. Many of these farmhouses were unadorned, vernacular structures featuring rectangular or L-shaped plans, one- or two-story wood-frame construction, gable or hip roofs, and wood siding. Farmers with more money often built their own interpretations of popular late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century styles such as the Victorian/Queen Anne, foursquare, and bungalow or else purchased a house kit from retailers such as Sears, Roebuck and Company in the United States or Eatons of Canada. The front facade and formal entrance usually faced the road, while the everyday entrance was on a side facade and often led into the kitchen. Growing farm families sometimes built a house for the next or the previous generation near the original farmhouse.

Barns and outbuildings became taller and wider and were located farther from the house. Improved truss and rafter systems enabled farmers to build barns that were wind resistant and had tall, clearspan second stories for hay storage. These gambrel- and Gothic arch–roofed barns were just one of many new building types that were a product of this era. Round barns with central interior silos and circular stall arrangements also were promoted as an ideal solution for efficient livestock feeding. The farmyard, essentially nonexistent in most original homesteading complexes, became an important feature of the farm landscape during this time. Many were U-shaped or rectangular, with buildings facing toward the center. The farmhouse, located some distance away from the outbuildings, often had a lawn and gardens facing the road. Some farmyards had a grove of trees to one side for wind protection.

This expansion, improvement, and homogenization of the Great Plains farm continued until the bottom dropped out of the farm economy in the early 1920s and the subsequent Great Depression and extreme weather conditions of the early 1930s forced many families to abandon their farms. Increased mechanization meant that it took fewer people to operate a farm. All these factors contributed to a large decline in the rural population during the 1930s.

Farms surviving into the 1940s were much larger in area and more automated than their predecessors. Expensive new machinery that had to be operated over large tracts of land to be cost-effective required shelters larger than traditional machine sheds. The pole building, a single-story metal structure with a very shallow pitched gable roof supported by poles, was introduced after World War II for machinery and crop storage and for housing livestock. These buildings are still popular.

The trend toward larger farms and a smaller rural population continues today. Many operators live in town and either rent land or work for large corporations with massive landholdings. However, many Plains family farms do survive, and some retain architectural evidence of their earlier years.

See also Agriculture: Family Farm; Suitcase Farming.

Stephanie Ahrendt Newport News, Virginia

Jacon, Steph, and Allyson Brooks. Homesteading and Agricultural Development Context. Vermillion: South Dakota State Historical Preservation Center, 1994.

Martynowych, Orest T. The Ukrainian Bloc Settlement in East Central Alberta, 1890–1930: A History. Historic Sites Service Occasional Paper no. 10. Edmonton: Alberta Community Development, Historic Sites Service, 1985.

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