Of Barns And Bridges

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The first American was, above anything else, a worker in wood. Wood was his only raw material of any consequence, but it was extremely abundant, and the early American knew how to use the ax and the adz, the whipsaw and the drawknife. So he set to work to build the structures that he needed in his daily life—houses, barns, fences, sheds, bridges and whatnot—and in the process of doing it he developed a pleasing and distinctive architecture which gives its own flavor to the American landscape.

This architecture gets intelligent and understanding treatment in Eric Sloane’s new book, American Barns and Covered Bridges , which is one of the most completely delightful evocations of the American past to appear in a long time. Mr. Sloane writes about American wooden structures and the men who built them, and he sketches them as well, and he does both jobs with uncommon skill.

Urban Americans, prowling the countryside by auto on week ends, have long since put the covered bridge in the “Oh how quaint!” category. Mr. Sloane would like to rescue the covered bridge from quaintness. The covered bridge, he remarks, was essentially a barn, built across a running stream by carpenters who had no technical training whatever but who did know their jobs and the various kinds of wood available; and the barn, in turn, was a completely utilitarian structure, put up by home-bred craftsmen who would have been dumbfounded if anyone had told them they were creating an architectural style but who did know that they had to build something weather-proof and lasting to protect livestock and harvested crops. So they built simply—and very well.

For these early builders were essentially farmers who were also woodsmen. They could cut seasoned timber from standing trees and, with tools forged by themselves, build houses of genuine distinction. They had a few “how to do it” books—there was, for instance, William Peale’s Carpenter’s Pocket Manual with Compleat Directions for Building a Barn , published in the 1700’s—but for the most part they were jacks-of-all-trades, and although they operated in fields as different as New England, Pennsylvania and Virginia, their barns all had something in common and looked as if they had been designed by the same architect.

Mr. Sloane knows how to write about these old buildings. As, for instance:

“Whether you like it for its structural beauty or have just enough of the poet in you to see it as a symbol of pioneer man, an old farm building is the past as well as the present; vanished generations have built themselves into it. It may have outlived its usefulness as modern farming goes, but like an old apple tree that is too far gone to bear perfect fruit, its value as beauty and symbol remains.”

The early barn, he continues, had dynamic symmetry because it came from the simplest sort of planning, for the early builder had no implements but the square, the compass, and the straightedge. But out of this came a design that was aesthetically pleasing, and from it came patterns for farm homes and school buildings. There was always a harmony of line, arising chiefly because sound craftsmen were trying to build things in the simplest possible way, making them enduring enough for lifelong use.

Perhaps the best way to give the real flavor of Mr. Sloane’s altogether delightful book is to reproduce some of the sketches that he has put in it. That is done here, on the opposite page, in the hope that a great many readers may thus be led to go farther and learn by actual possession of the book how much pleasure and enlightenment it can give to anyone who is interested in our common American background.

American Barns and Covered Bridges , by Eric Sloane. Illustrated by the author. 112 pp. Wilfred Funk, Inc.