Barns For The Ages

Few in number, cantilever barns leave quite a legacy.


Barns For The Ages

Few in number, cantilever barns leave quite a legacy.

By Charles Johnson

Head to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to connect with America’s rural heritage. You’ll find it through easily-accessible, well-preserved barns that were fairly unique even when used daily by the families who farmed here during the century before the park opened in 1934.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find these cantilever barns anywhere else. They’re on the national park’s Tennessee side, unique structures located in just two counties. Most of the two million people who tour Cades Cove, the park’s most popular attraction, traverse its 11-mile loop road never realizing the historic nature of its barns. Reaching the cantilever barn along the tranquil Porters Creek Trail east of Gatlinburg requires a bit more exertion, but the effort is well spent. You’ll be touching Appalachian history most people never even think about.

Built in the 19th century, most cantilever barns were located in Sevier and Blount counties in East Tennessee, both now gateways to the national park. Of 316 cantilever barns identified by University of Tennessee professors Marian Moffett and Lawrence Wodehouse in the 1980s, only 27 were built in other counties. A few others were built on farms in North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky.

A cantilever barn is notable for an overhang that provided extra storage for its second-story loft. It also protected farm animals from inclement weather whenever they gathered under its shelter.

Originally, cantilever barns were built in Switzerland. Germans took the idea and refined it after their government began taxing based on a building’s footprint. Overhangs didn’t get taxed, so the Germans liked the idea of building big ones. Scots-Irish people carried the cantilever barn to America, along with Germans, says Richard Way, whose interest in historic buildings goes back to childhood.

That interest led him to be a founder of the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, Townsend, Tennessee, where he reconstructed a very old cantilever barn from a farm in another part of the county. Way’s enthusiasm for cantilever barns knows no bounds. He built The Barn Event Center of the Smokies as essentially a 90-by-50-foot cantilever barn that hosts receptions, parties, and reunions.

“I’ve counted 21 cantilever barns still in existence in Blount County, but most are difficult to recognize because they’ve been changed through the years. Most were torn down for their really nice hardwood timbers to go into new houses,” Way says.

Ties to history. Creative people who value the region’s rich past find cantilever barns special because of their cultural ties to southern Appalachian history. Jim Hind built his Richmont Inn, a 14-room bed and breakfast place located at Laurel Valley near Townsend Tennessee, 25 years ago in the style of a big cantilever barn for just that reason.

“The whole idea is to honor the architecture, landscape, history, and heritage of the Smoky Mountain pioneers. The cantilever barn is phenomenal. Go to the park and look at those barns. They were built with a lot of care and precise detail. You have to appreciate the complexity of it and realize it was done without any modern tools at all. They are really very impressive architecturally,” Hind says.

The barns in the Cable Mill Historic Area of Cades Cove look like they have been right there many years. It turns out that they are original barns from the area but were reconstructed by the national park service. The barn on Porters Creek Trail sits right where John Messer built it in 1875.

Located about a mile from the trailhead, roughly 200 yards to the right of the trail itself, it is possible on some days to sit here in virtual solitude and contemplate nature. Porters Creek runs its way along the trail. On a typical morning, a pair of pileated woodpeckers hammer at trees searching for grubs and ants, communicating with that high piping call that affirms we are indeed in the Smokies.

A cantilever barn built in 1875 stands near the Porters Creek Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A cantilever barn built in 1875 stands near the Porters Creek Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Look closely and you see that John Messer built this barn with care, intending it to be here for a while. It looks big, even bigger than the barns in Cades Cove. He could have stored a lot of hay in the loft and plenty of corn in the two cribs. Several animals could have sheltered in the barn’s overhang.

The Messer barn’s overhang, its cantilever, if you will, seems particularly distinctive. Sitting on a small slope may accentuate it. These ten-foot overhangs are typical of cantilever barns in this area. Richard Way says the unaltered East Tennessee barns differ from Europe’s by having an overhang on all four sides. The reason: termites.

“When they started building here, the cantilever barns were more like German barns, with cantilevers front and back. Then someone in this area from Chattanooga to Bristol figured out that the termites here have to go back to wet soil every 24 hours and can tunnel only 8 to 10 feet. So they began making cantilevers all around the barn. They also raised the barns on big stones to keep out termites. It’s the first termite control in this region. Those farmers were very innovative,” Way says.

Most of the two million or so people who drive, hike, and bike each year go by the barns in Cades Cove and probably pay them little attention. The John P. Cable Grist Mill nearby gets lots of visitors eager to buy freshly ground corn meal. The barns are just barns until you take time to look at the carefully fitted beams, the notched logs, the care that went into making them purposeful structures.

Stop in with the crowds, then go on down the loop road, dodging bicycles, and keeping an eye out for the bears often sighted here. At the Tipton Place a few miles along the Cades Cove loop road stands an outstanding replica of a cantilever barn. This one makes you feel like hanging around a while to feed the livestock, except there are no livestock to feed.

Longtime passion. This 800 square mile national park, beautiful, full of nature’s bounty, is a museum, really, to remind us of our heritage. About ten million people visit the Smokies each year, not knowing that 6,600 tracts of private land went into the park’s makeup. In 1850, about 700 people lived and farmed in Cades Cove. To get to the nearest town, Maryville, Tennessee, required a three day horseback trip. Now we drive it in about an hour.

A lot of that history is gone, but some remains, thanks to the park’s preservation efforts. The barns  that are left, along with the few houses and other structures, help us keep in touch with our history.

Particularly at John Messer’s barn, surrounded by big hardwoods that have grown up since his day, it is good to sit in the shade on a mid-summer day, letting the hours pass. Occasional airplanes overhead are the only reminders of the 21st century. For a while we can imagine the Messer family working their livestock, interacting with each other and enjoying life, and we are thankful the barn is here.

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