A Prairie Masterpiece -
the Fromme-Birney Round Barn
By Mary Hooper
It cost $8,000 to build, almost $100,000 to restore and is priceless.
It is the Fromme-Birney Round Barn in Kiowa County south of Mullinville, a creation of William D. “Pat” Campbell IV, a cabinet-maker and carpenter, many of whose buildings still dot the county.
If Campbell left a masterpiece, it has to be the Fromme-Birney Round Barn.
“Round” is something of a misnomer, for the barn is polygonal, with 16 sides. But why quibble? From its completion in 1912, the barn was seen as something special. It won an honorable mention in a barn photo contest and was pictured in the 1917-18 report of the Kansas Board of Agriculture.
There are actual round barns, according to Bob Neier, county extension agent and horticulturist in Sedgwick County. But anything eight-sided or more is called a round barn. The first 16-sided barn in the U.S. was built by George Washington at Mount Vernon and was modeled on English barns of the time. Washington’s barn, like much of Mount Vernon, was neglected and became dilapidated, surviving until the 1870s. During an extensive program of renovation and restoration at Mount Vernon in the ‘90s, the barn was rebuilt to specifications set down by Washington himself and is drawing appreciative visitors.
Our first president, who embraced progressive farming methods, probably would have admired Campbell’s barn, which is larger and more stylish, if such a word can be applied to barns, than Mount Vernon’s. Washington’s barn was 50 feet in diameter, Campbell’s 70. The Mount Vernon barn has a plain single-pitch conical roof, while Campbell’s roof is double-pitched and topped with a 16-sided cupola and an ornate, seven-foot weathervane. The barn is 50 feet high.
On the ground floor, a 16-sided granary, measuring 16 feet across, stands smack in the center. Encircling the granary is a track for horses, and beyond that are 14 horse stalls.
To appreciate the awesome domed ceiling with its intricate network of sheathing boards, rafters and beams, you climb a staircase to the loft.
“The roof is a work of art. Just try to find a knot or knot hole in any of the main framing. You won’t,” said Neier, an expert on the Fromme-Birney barn.
The floor of the loft is like a great wooden pie, consisting of 16 wedges of tongue-and-groove boards, aligned exactly to the 16 exterior sides.
Neier’s knowledge is born of a love of barns in general, and of a lifelong familiarity with the Fromme-Birney barn. It isn’t just any barn to him. It’s one he saw every morning as a boy when he got up and looked out his bedroom window.
“It’s where I grew up. My grandparents and dad owned grounds north of the barn. Dad farmed the ground across the road from the barn. I grew up always seeing the round barn and in the morning, I’d see the sun coming up around the barn,” Neier said.
The barn is named after the Fromme family which built the barn, and the Birney family which later owned and preserved it.
Henry W. Fromme (pronounced Frommy) was an immigrant from Germany who arrived in Kansas with less than $1 in his pockets. He worked hard and prospered, acquired farmland south of Mullinville and eventually needed a barn to shelter his 28 draft horses.
Round barns were considered, back in the heyday of barn-building, more efficient and cheaper to build than rectangular barns.
The state Board of Agriculture, in its 80th biennial report of 1911-12, contained an article entitled “Efficiency of the Round Barn.” Circular barns were becoming popular in the early 20th century in the dairy lands of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin because a central silo made it easier to feed cows, the writer explained.
They became popular elsewhere, however, because they use much less lumber and are more wind-resistant, definite pluses in southwestern Kansas.
“Nowadays when timber is scarce and therefore expensive, the countryman is gradually being forced into accepting the circular barn on account of the fact that it can be built at so pronounced a saving in material,” declared the report.
Neier’s dad recalled hay being raised up in slings and dumped loose into the loft, from whence it could be raked into feeding troughs below.
But within a few years, the barn became obsolete, at least as a mess hall for Fromme’s draft horses. The reason was the tractor. Draft horses, farming’s main power source, were being sent out to pasture. From then on, the barn’s chief use was to store hay for cattle, Neier said.
Campbell’s framing was “uniquely complex,” according to Neier. Campbell, as The Hutchinson News reported in 1996, used only a framing square to compute the angles for the 160 two-by-sixes which converge at the cupola and cut each piece with a handsaw.
Almost 2,000 tin hip shingles covered the 16 roof seams. To illustrate how much loving detail Campbell lavished on his barn, each of the original hip shingles, also called ridge caps, was stamped with the image of a sunflower.
The popularity of the round barn waned around 1925, says Neier. One reason was a lack of carpenters competent enough to engineer such structures. Many barns, in fact, were raised by farmers for whom it was easier to build oblong or square barns.
“In many farming communities, the barns were built first, then the house. Have you ever wondered why, when you see an abandoned farmstead, many times the house is gone but the barn is still there? A house is designed efficiently, but a lot of barns were built by farmers and lay people and what they lacked in engineering know-how they compensated for with overbuilding. They used a lot more lumber than was necessary, so the barn lives, while the house is long gone,” Neier said.
The Frommes, father Henry and later, son Moritz, owned the round barn until 1954 when another local farmer, J.W. Birney, bought the property at auction. In 1970, his son, Lawrence, of Boca Raton, Fla., inherited the barn and surrounding quarter section. Lawrence, recently wed, took his bride, Phyllis, out to Kansas to see the old home place. Phyllis was instantly smitten with the round barn, but dismayed at its dilapidated condition.
“It’s an architectural gem, a part of Americana. It has to be preserved,” she reportedly said.
In 1985, Lawrence presented Phyllis with the barn and the acre it occupies as a 15th anniversary gift. She immediately set about to save the barn.
The Birneys’ efforts in documenting the barn’s construction and design led to its listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. But it was in sorry shape. The roof leaked, much of the siding was rotted, and some of the doors and windows were gone. The majestic weathervane was badly damaged by decades of weather and target shooters taking potshots at it.
In 1993 Mrs. Birney sold the barn to the Kiowa County Historical Society for $1. The society ultimately raised $21,000 to qualify for a grant of $75,000 from the Kansas Historical Society. The ridge caps had to be replaced, so volunteers painted in the sunflower imprints and sold the caps to raise money.
It was a restoration Pat Campbell would have been proud of. The father and son team of Jerry and Jeff Koehn oversaw the restoration effort and reshingled the roof. The same firm that had produced the original ridge caps made new ones, and yes, stamped them with the sunflower design. The group put up new siding and replaced the windows and doors. A replica of the old weathervane was placed atop the cupola, and the barn was given a paint job.
Fern Fromme, member of the restoration committee whose husband had been descended from both Pat Campbell and Henry Fromme, commented that the site didn’t look right without a windmill. Originally, two windmills pumped water for cattle. The committee duly found and installed a wooden windmill.
The restoration was completed in the fall of 1995. A few months later, Mrs. Fromme celebrated her 80th birthday with a big party at the barn.
In 2008, the barn was voted one of the eight wonders of Kansas in the annual Kansas Sampler competition. The barn is always open. To find it, drive south on Main Street in Mullinville and continue out of town for three and a half miles, then go west for one and three-quarters miles on a dirt road. Take your camera.