A Year in the Round

How my love for a barn in Iowa inspired a lifelong obsession.

The approach to the main entrance takes you up the sloping lawn to a pair of giant sliding wooden doors. A wagon can easily pull in, load or unload, and drive off without ever having to back up or turn around

Credit: Sandra L. Dyas

If not for my desperate crush on an aspiring poet named John Badger, I might never have heard of the Secrest farm. It was the summer of 1997. I was living in Iowa City, having just finished a graduate degree in creative writing at the University of Iowa. Some poet friends of John's were throwing a party outside of town, and though I'm not a big party-goer—especially when the going involves a 10-mile drive over unlit dirt roads at night—I'd driven far greater distances for lesser crushes, and my crush on John Badger was, in no uncertain terms, colossal.

And entirely unrequited, though I didn't know that as I set off along Highway 6 to the town of Downey.

John's friends were living for next to nothing in a dilapidated farmhouse they'd rented from Rich Tyler, a faculty member at the university who'd bought the property in 1995. Tyler planned to restore and live in the farmhouse someday, but in the meantime, he was renting it out to students. The house was in pretty rough shape, but the eight-sided barn, which Tyler had restored, was a different matter. It stood across a field, freshly painted red, stately and majestic. When someone suggested that we head over, the poets, who held the barn in a kind of reverential awe, made everyone put out their cigarettes before we even started walking. The field had been mowed that day, and everything smelled of grass—heady, like the quintessence of summer—and though John Badger had done little more than say, "Hey," to me that evening, I walked through the prickly, dewy grass feeling like everything I envisioned between us was imminent and gloriously possible.

The approach to the barn's main entrance took us up the sloping lawn to a pair of giant sliding wood doors. This was the second level of the barn, above the old stalls for horses and cows. I couldn't see much as we made our way up a wide, creaking staircase to the hay loft on the barn's third level, but at the crest of the stairs the space opened up before us, and I think I may have heard a collective gasp.

Barn Again!

The 1980s were a difficult time for family farms. Technology, tax laws, and price-support programs favored large factory farms, forcing smaller operations out of business. "Farms were abandoned and left crumbling, and falling-down barns became a symbol for the times," says Jim Lindberg, director of preservation initiatives at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s mountains/plains office. "It was wrenching."

In 1987 the National Trust created the BARN AGAIN! program to encourage reuse of derelict or obsolete farming structures. Since the program’s inception, barns have been recycled for a variety of modern agricultural uses, everything from seed storage to hog breeding. "[Barns] can be easily adapted, and that’s one of their strengths," says Lindberg.  Visit PreservationNation.org/issues/rural-heritage/barn-again for more information. —Elizabeth McNamara

I was having a hard time getting my bearings, figuring out the dimensions, the scope of the chamber in which we stood. Moonlight beamed in through several small windows, one on each of the barn's eight sides, as well as through the eight windows of the octagonal cupola, which was so unfathomably far above us, the moon might have been stuck up there on a lightning rod or weathervane. Stepping into such a space—entirely unobstructed by supporting posts, beams, or columns, just open, empty, enormous—was like stepping into a cathedral.

I no longer cared about John Badger. I had fallen for something else. All I wanted was to lie down on those wide-board floor planks and gaze up at the illuminated god's-eye of the cupola. Along the interior of the bell-shaped roof, a suspended stairway hugged the ceiling's curve, providing access to the cupola from the floor far below. I imagined climbing those rickety steps to reach the cupola's cage, longing to lean out and stroke the smooth flank of that big white marble of a moon, seemingly perched just outside.

One of the earliest examples of a multisided barn in the United States can be traced to Virginia, where George Washington built a small 16-sided building near Mount Vernon in the early 1790s. Barns such as Washington's were seen as the extravagant showpieces of wealthy gentleman farmers—nothing more than folly. In the mid-1850s, however, a philosopher of sorts named Orson Squire Fowler sought to create a movement in favor of octagonal structures. Fowler believed that the circle was the most perfect shape in nature, but that an octagon could be more easily built. Children reared in octagons would be, he argued in his treatise A Home For All, more amiable than those raised in traditional right-angled houses.

Soon, octagonal barns came into vogue in many parts of the country (though none was definitively influenced by Fowler's hypotheses). Heralded for their ability to withstand and deflect gusts of prairie winds, octagonal barns seemed perfect for a place like Iowa, and their existence in the state can likely be traced to the ingenuity of one prominent Iowan.

This is an excerpt from the print magazine. Check back in March for the full text. In the meantime, consider subscribing to the magazine to read it in print.

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