The Nelson Brothers Barn
This fine example of a mid-nineteenth century English-framed American barn was originally built overlooking the Mohawk River of New York. This region was first settled by the Dutch in the 1600’s, then later, just after the American Revolution ended in 1783, English settlers from nearby New England pushed West across the Hudson River and up the Mohawk River in search of open farmland. They brought along with them a different form of barn framing called the “English” frame, which came over from England to America in the early 1600’s.
The Nelson Brothers Barn was built from local native woods including hemlock. These massive timbers were cut from the virgin forest and are much tighter-grained than modern woods. Hemlock is also an unusual wood in that it was felled mainly for its bark, which is rich in tannic acid used for tanning hides into leather. Arriving in the Mohawk Valley in the early 1800’s, the Nelson Brothers probably found the logs already cut down, and they then built them into their barn. This barn is nearly all hand-hewn with the broad axe, another indication of its early age when timbers were all cut and squared by hand before sawmills arrived in the area.
The Nelson Brothers Barn was built in response to an event of enormous social and economic change that took place nearby: the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 linking the Hudson River with the Great Lakes at Buffalo, New York. This 363-mile-long waterway is considered the greatest engineering feat of the 19th Century. It was the first viable transportation route from what was then the remote interior of the Great Lakes and Midwest to the East Coast. It made New York City the largest city in America, surpassing Philadelphia, and opened up the Midwest to a flood of immigrant settlers. Barns like this, along the route of the canal, were on some of the most prosperous farms in America.
The economic changes that the canal brought to America also brought changes to the entire American economy, including farming, and therefore the way barns were built. For the first time in American history farmers began to grow “cash crops” exclusively. The canal made it possible to ship such crops to long-distance markets. The Nelson Brothers Barn was designed and built exclusively for dairy cows, with a massive overhead space to store hay.
Barns like this barn can never be built again. They are monuments to the age of hand-hewing trees into beams and crafting a building by hand out of massive virgin timbers that can no longer be found. The Erie Canal is no longer the economic engine that once drove the American economy, but it was a key steppingstone that led to the global economy that we have today. Just as the economy moved on from the Erie Canal, so too did its offspring, the Nelson Brothers barn, move on to Texas where it has found a new life.