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Planning New Barns a Lesson in Agricultural History – A 100-Year Leap in Farming

The Virginia Dept. of Historic Resources (DHR), owner of Clermont Farm, is managing the project to replace Clermont’s 1917 bank barn which burned in November, 2018. The burned two-story bank barn (and its attached 1849 Corn Crib), which was built into the hillside, housed animals, office and vet services on the ground floor and hay, feed, and equipment storage (plus since Elizabeth Williams’ gift of Clermont to DHR in 2004, archaeological storage and education space) on the second floor. It was a classic building, but represented the technology, labor requirements, and farming business model of its time.
Making the jump from a building built for the farming, technology, and labor requirements of over one hundred years ago to a building built for the farming of today, its different business model, greatly increased technology, and greatly decreased labor force, is one challenge.
A second challenge is that the former barn burned in 2018, before the Pandemic, and the large increases in construction costs in the five years since make replacement difficult. A third challenge is integrating new central barn structures with the existing whole system of the farm, the fencing and alleyways designed to facilitate rotational grazing and to reduce the labor needed to manage this.
The former barn, built in a traditional barn-raising with the help of neighbors in the summer of 1917 (clearly remembered by Elizabeth Williams’ father, Edward McCormick Williams), was planned for “loose hay” technology, rather than the subsequent square hay bale or the contemporary rolled round bales, and movement of stored hay was powered by horses, which require different kinds of space to work than modern wheeled vehicles with internal combustion engines. The lower floor for animals of the former barn (planned for “live-in” animals including dairy cattle and draft horses) was completely inaccessible to wheeled vehicles, and down to the barn’s end, removal of manure required all hand labor.

The farming business model in 1917, the same all over the Shenandoah Valley and generally the same as in the 18th and 19th centuries, is known to historians as “general mixed farming” which featured every farm having a great variety of animals (milk cows, beef cows, pigs, sheep and goats), poultry (chickens, turkeys and ducks), and crops (wheat, corn, barley, oats and hay of different types). This model emphasized economic sustainability through diversity of enterprise.

Subsequent to WWII, with the rise of machine technologies, the shortage of and rising cost of labor, increased research on animals and crops, and with the consolidation of agricultural suppliers, commodity buyers and the markets, the older diversified farming model generally disappeared. Farming became more specialized and shifted on individual farms to a more sharply focused model based around one or two types of animals and one or two principal crops, with farmers more often buying hay for animals given the costs of equipment and production on smaller farms.

Foundation of burned two-story 1917 Bank Barn built into hillside, with surviving circa 1920 red Metal Silo and circa 1940 white Cement Stave Silo (both to be retained). Clarke Middle-school students touring farm on hay wagon.

Former Clermont 1917 Bank Barn (two-story barn built into hill/bank) site, looking east to Blue Ridge. New one-story Hay Barn (smaller) will be built within the former barn site, and new one-story Animal Barn will be built down at fence to east. 

Clermont exemplifies this historic change, with 1948 being the last year of general mixed, highly diversified farming. In that year, the tenant farmer Gilbert Royston retired and sold all his animals and equipment (including large amounts of harness for draft and driving horses). The animal list in his sale poster of 1948 is very similar to owner Edward McCormick's animal inventory in the Agricultural Schedule of the U.S. Census of 1850, testifying to the long duration of the general mixed farming model. But at Clermont, as elsewhere, 1948 marked the turning point to the demise of that model and the rise of specialized farming and marketing to an industrialized food production system.

At Clermont this was represented by specialization in beef cattle and hay (now with sheep and corn added). It should be noted that while greater specialization continues, farming methods are continuing to evolve, based on better (and sometimes older) understandings of what constitute good and environmentally sound crop and animal raising, with due respect for the health of animals, soil, water, air, and humans, as well as the wildlife on agricultural lands.

Barns reflected these changes, becoming simpler, single story structures with doors and spaces accommodating wheeled vehicles, minimizing labor time and reducing risk (separating storage of highly combustible materials like hay from animals and equipment).

Initial plans for building replacements for the 1917 Barn at Clermont are based on the criteria above, including separating into two one-story buildings the animal barn and the hay barn, the combined square footage of enclosed space in the two new buildings being considerably less than in the historic barn and corn crib (13,021 sf.). The proposed location will be in the same area as the former barn and its barnyard, to integrate with the farm's existing animal fenced alleyways and working pen system, minimizing use of existing crop and pasture land.

The state bidding for the architectural and engineering contract went to a local firm, Main Street Architecture. The schedule will depend on approval of funding and plans at the state level, followed by state bidding for a contractor, and then construction.