Barn-demonium! A Crash Course on Barns in Tennessee

By Dr. J Ethan Holden, National Register Coordinator

There are few buildings more synonymous with Tennessee’s agrarian history and rural past than the humble barn. Yet despite their popularity, it can be difficult to identify the many different types of barns in Tennessee. This article provides a crash course on Tennessee barns by examining their history and character defining features. A collection of National Register-listed Tennessee barns also demonstrates what a representative barn of each type may look like.

Before getting started, it is important to note that there are many more types of barns and outbuildings in Tennessee than those outlined in this brief article. If you do not see a particular outbuilding or barn type listed here, we encourage you to explore our National Register listings to see if you can find it. And if you do not see it in our listings? Stick around to the end for information on how to determine if an outbuilding or barn could be listed in the National Register!

Barns are generally organized by their construction method, overall design and spatial arrangement, and their roof type. The earliest barns in the state were simple buildings constructed of unchinked horizontal logs notched at the corner and capped with a gable roof. These versatile rectangular buildings were known as “cribs” or “pens” and could be modified to suit the individual farmer’s needs. Many farmers attached a lightweight shed roof addition on one side to create a sheltered area for unloading corn or storing farm equipment. Others expanded their barns by building another crib nearby and connecting both under a single roof. Two of the most recognizable barn types in Tennessee, the Cantilever and Central Aisle Barns, evolved from the single crib barn.[1]

Log barns were superseded in popularity by wood frame construction in the early-nineteenth century. Early wood frame barns were built using the post and beam framing process, a labor-intensive method that required a high level of wood-working and construction skill. However, the popularization of balloon framing in the 1830s dramatically simplified the barn building process.[2] Standardized boards and nails were used to create a lightweight frame upon which any exterior siding and roofing material could be applied. This opened a world of different design options for farmers, who consequently erected larger and more elaborate barns across Tennessee.[3]

The last major evolution in barn construction was the arrival of the pole barn in the mid-twentieth century. As agriculture gradually mechanized following the end of World War II, the need for a barn that could accommodate tractors and other machinery became apparent. In response, farmers started building a new type of barn to house their equipment. Large, rot-resistant poles were driven deep into the ground. Equally large roof trusses were placed on top of the poles. This building method eliminated the need for interior structural walls, making the pole barns large and spacious. The flexibility of the barn’s interior spaces was perfect for storing equipment and could be quickly modified to fit a particular farm need. Pole barns were frequently covered in metal siding and had a simple dirt or poured concrete floor.[4]

With barn construction methods covered, we can now look at barn design. Though there are an almost limitless number of different barn designs, a few stand out for their historical significance and popularity. One of the most recognizable barns is the Cantilever, a barn type closely associated with Tennessee and Appalachia. A Cantilever barn generally consists of two log cribs sat upon a rock pier foundation with an extended loft overhanging all four sides, though single, four, and five crib examples also exist. Most examples were constructed between 1880-1900 and can be found in East Tennessee. Farmers stored hay in the loft, and the interior runway could shelter either livestock or wagons. A survey conducted in the 1980s revealed that Blount County alone was home to 126 double crib cantilever barns, including the National Register-listed Carl Trundle Barn in Wildwood.[5] It is currently unknown how many of these barns continue to survive to the present day.

Another important barn type is the Bank Barn, also known as “raised” or “foundation” barns. Bank Barns were built perpendicular to the slope of a hill, creating a downhill first story accessed by a gable-end entrance and an uphill second story portion generally accessed by a ramp. Most examples are naturally located in Middle and East Tennessee, where hilly terrain is common. Animals were kept on the first floor because it was warm in the winter and cool during the summer. Wagons and other implements were located on the second floor. Examples like the Zaugg Bank Barn in Belvidere, Franklin County were built in the late-nineteenth century. Bank Barns are relatively rare in Tennessee but common in the Midwest.[6]

The last major barn type based on overall design is the Central Aisle Barn, sometimes called the “transverse crib” or “transverse frame” barn. Identified by architectural historians Caneta Hankins and Michael Gavin as “Tennessee’s greatest contribution to the built agricultural environment of the South,” the Central Aisle Barn can be found in great numbers across the state and Southeast United States The barn owes its success to a simple design and flexible spatial arrangement. Key characteristics of the Central Aisle Barn include a large central runway with multiple stalls on each side and a loft located above. Farmers could use the spaces for feeding livestock, storing grain, or sheltering tractors and farm equipment.[7]

Finally, barns are also identified by their roof type. Besides the ubiquitous gable roof, barn enthusiasts have identified three major roof types: the Gambrel roof, Gothic roof, and Monitor roof. The Gambrel roof originated in Europe and arrived in America with various ethnic groups. Its name refers to the bent part of a horse leg, which the roof resembles. To form the roof, a full-length timber was replaced by two shorter rafters cut at a different pitch and joined together to form a new angle. This roof type was attractive to many farmers because it increased the total usable space in the barn loft. Gambrel roofs were incredibly popular during the twentieth century and became the default choice for many farmers building new Central Aisle Barns.[8]

The Gothic roof barn type was much less common than the Gambrel roof, though it was no less striking. It is believed that Gothic roof barns got their start in Michigan, where the first of their kind began emerging around 1885. Accomplishing the signature curve of a Gothic arch was an involved process. Carpenters would lay out the rafter patten on the floor of an unfinished barn, and then nail wood blocks on each side of the pattern to create a jig. Wood planks where then bolted together, soaked in water, and bent into the jigs until the wood permanently warped to achieve the signature Gothic arch. Companies like Sears and Roebuck sold Gothic arch trusses to make obtaining the signature roof style easier. Though elegant, the Gothic roof was more than just decoration. Its arch was the optimal design to maximize loft space in a barn.[9]

Finally, sitting somewhere between a gable and Gambrel roof was the Monitor roof, also known as a “clerestory” roof. It allowed for more loft space than the gable roof, though it was not as efficient as the Gambrel or Gothic roof type. However, the raised section of the Monitor roof provided opportunities for window openings, creating more light and better ventilation for those inside. This bonus made the barn a popular choice for housing livestock.[10]

There is a depth of significance and complexity to Tennessee barns that is not apparent at first glance. Ten Tennessee barns are individually listed in the National Register in recognition of this fact, with many more being listed as part of larger farms or districts. If you are interested in seeing if your barn could be added to this list, the best place to start is by completing an Information Packet, located on our National Register Listing Process webpage. This article is a great starting point for identifying and describing a barn you might want to list. Whether they keep a lonely vigil in an abandoned field or maintain pride of place on a Century Farm, Tennessee barns are a vital part of our rural landscape and history.


[1] Caneta Skelley Hankins and Michael Thomas Gavin, Barns of Tennessee (Virginia Beach: Donning Company Publishers, 2009) pgs 12-14; Caroll Van West, Tennessee Agriculture: A Century Farms Perspective (Nashville: Tennessee Department of Agriculture, 1986) pg. 136; Allen G. Noble, Wood, Brick & Stone: The North American Settlement Landscape, Volume 2: Barns and Farm Structures (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), pg. 3.

[2] Joseph C. Bigott, “Balloon Frame Construction,” Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2005,,so%20without%20examining%20physical%20evidence.; Lyle, “Balloon Framing: Technology That Changed Chicago,” Chicago Public Library, April 21, 2014,; Paul E. Sprague, “The Origin of Balloon Framing,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 40, No. 4 (1981), 311-319.

[3] Hankins and Gavin, Barns of Tennessee, pgs. 18-20.

[4] Hankins and Gavin, Barns of Tennessee, pgs. 28-31.

[5] Hankins and Gavin, Barns of Tennessee, pgs. 40-41; Noble, Wood Brick & Stone, pg. 5; Philip Thomason, “Carl Trundle Barn,” National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1978).

[6] Hankins and Gavin, Barns of Tennessee, p. 36; Randy Leffingwell, Barns (St. Paul: MBI Publishing Company, 2001), pg. 26; Richard H. Hulan, “Zaugg Bank Barn,” National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1978).

[7] Hankins and Gavin, Barns of Tennessee, pgs. 44-45; Howard Wight Marshall, Barns of Missouri: Storehouses of History (Virginia Beach: The Donning Company Publishers, 2003), pgs. 87-90; Noble, Wood, Brick & Stone, pgs. 10-11;

[8] Hankins and Gavin, Barns of Tennessee, pg. 52-53; Allen G. Noble and Richard K. Cleek, The Old Barn Book: A Field Guide to North American Barns & Other Farm Structures (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995), pg. 35.

[9] Hankins and Gavin, Barns of Tennessee, pg. 56; Randy Leffingwell, Barns, pg. 75.

[10] Noble and Cleek, The Old Barn Book, pg. 39.