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Potluck: Iowa's Round Barns


Buildings with Vision and Curves

Compiled by Carol Bodensteiner
and Mary Gottschalk

Iowa is a land of practical people. Much of the land is divided into one-mile squares and subdivided into tidy rectangles. It stands to reason that the barns Iowa farmers build would be just as neat, making good use of no-nonsense right angles.

More than 200,000 barns once dotted the Iowa landscape. Only a handful — about 160 or so —broke the rectangle mold. A few of those barns, such as the Charles Knapp Round Barn in Calhoun County, were truly round, but the “round” designation also includes hexagon and octagon shapes. George Washington built a 16-sided version in 1793.

Originally built in 1920 to house dairy cattle and Percheron horses, the Knapp Barn was donated to the Twin Lakes Christian Center near Manson in 1994 and moved there in 2003.

Round barn proponents cited advantages that included economy, convenience, safety, and an enhanced ability to stand against the wind. Detractors pointed out that the structures were complicated to construct and required exceptional carpentry expertise. Scott Larson, executive director at Twin Lakes, attests to the complications of round barn construction. “The carpenters hated remodeling our barn. They work with squares, and our barn has no corners and no square places to work from.”

An estimated 1,000 Iowa barns disappear each year. Fewer than 127 round barns still stand. The Knapp Barn is one of the lucky ones. It’s been remodeled and has found new uses for weddings, retreats, and a multitude of other activities. The dome of the barn remains open so people can see it as it was built.

“I’ve often wondered what the farmer who built this was thinking,” says Larson, who applauds the builder’s vision. “There’s something inspiring about having a vision, using out-of-the-box thinking and creativity. It’s a philosophy I share for our camp ministry. We try to provide kids with a unique experience that stretches them.” — C.B.

Round and Round

Charles Knapp Round Barn

Iowa Barn Foundation 

Without Right Angles: The Round Barns of Iowa, 2nd edition, Lowell J. Soike (Penfield Books, 1990)

Barns Around Iowa: A Sampling of Iowa’s Round Barns, edited by Deb Schense, photographs by Luella Hazeltine (Penfield Books, 2008)

Photo courtesy Carol Bodensteiner.

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