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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Cantilevered Barns of East Tennessee

A curious nineteenth century American structure, the cantilevered barn is unique to the Southern Appalachian region where over 300 have been discovered. found principally in two East Tennessee counties, Sevier and Blount, the cantilever barn differs from an ordinary barn in that the second floor loft oversails or cantilevers out from the ground level supporting cribs. A cantilever is a horizontal projection, in this case a beam, without external bracing that appears to be self-supporting. In fact, the horizontal projection extends beneath or into the mass it supports and is kept in place by the downward force created by the mass resting on it.

In studies of mountain buildings made in the early 1960s, Henry Glassie identified these barns as characteristic of the southern highlands, indicating that they were found in North Carolina, Kentucky, and West Virginia. In the 1980s fieldwork by Marian Moffett and Lawrence Wodehouse found only six cantilever barns in Virginia and another three in North Carolina. By contrast, 316 cantilever barns were located in East Tennessee, with 183 in Sevier County, 106 in Blount County, and the remaining twenty-seven scattered from Johnson to Bradley Counties.

Documentary evidence on these barns is very scarce. Most seem to have been built from 1870 to about 1915, by second- or third-generation settlers. Cantilever barns were constructed on self-sufficient farms, where accommodations for seed corn, feed, livestock, and equipment were basic needs. The unusual design may derive from German forebay barns in Pennsylvania, built into the hillside with an overhang along the out-facing side. Pioneer blockhouses in East Tennessee and elsewhere had modest overhangs on all four sides of the upper story, and these may have inspired the shape of later barns. Experts agree that these pioneers based their designs on the timber construction techniques of their ancestors.

Tennessee farmers soon discovered that the European constructions, and even techniques brought from New England and the nearby Mid-Atlantic states, had to be modified to survive in the unique climate of eastern Tennessee. Cantilevered barns in drier northern climates often had one side built directly into the side of a hill- - to facilitate the moving of farm machinery and livestock in and out of the structure. This technique proved disastrous in the Tennessee mountains because of rain and termites. The higher elevations of eastern Tennessee receive up to eighty inches of rain annually and are warm enough to support two types of termites that thrive in the soggy soil. Barns adjacent to damp, infested ground lasted only a few years.

The most accessible cantilever barns are preserved at the Cable Mill and Tipton Homeplace in Cades Cove of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Two others are owned by the Museum of Appalachia in Norris.


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