Peter Aker's Round Barn
On September 11, 1911, the Peter Aker family began to raise a barn on their eighty-acre farm. The barn was to be built south of the Lake of the Woods in Marshall County, Indiana, next to the Goshen-Plymouth Road, a Potowatami Indian trail, five miles southwest of the town of Bremen, twelve miles southwest of the Stahly-Nissley-Kuhns farm, today known as Amish Acres. The neighboring farmers were excited with anticipation as the Akers were to raise a perfectly round barn, with a self-supporting doomed roof. The stables and stalls for the animals would be equidistant from the center of the sixty foot circular floor. The wood planked loft floor was designed to store the hay, straw, and grain for the animals below. A twelve foot cupola with eight pane windows let daylight into the mows.
The barn was designed for the rural life of a typical family farm, to house the draft horses for plowing, cultivating and harvesting the crops, and to provide a parlor for the milk cows. Double doors facing north were wide and high enough for fully loaded hay wagons to be driven into the barn where the rope slings, filled in layers in the fields, could be raised to the track and rotated along its radius to be dropped onto the mow floor. Marie Redman, daughter of Frank Aker, wrote her rememberances of the building of the barn.
The balloon framing structure of the barn, the revolutionary technique invented out of necessity in Chicago after the great fire, uses closely placed lightweight studs in place of the earlier heavy hand-hewed timber construction which depended heavy posts and beams connected with wooden-pegged mortise and tendon joints, perlins, ridge poles, all hand hewed with adzes. Frank Aker, Jr. recalled in 1976 in Wilson L. Wells' Barns in the U.S.A., "The contractor set up jigs in the barnyard. Green timbers were cut and fitted into the jigs. When they were properly seasoned, they were put into place by the use of scaffolds, boompoles, ropes, pulleys and horses, plus hard labor put the barn together. The large doors are painted red and Frank Aker's name is above." The straw shed was added, with the silo and milk house as the farm increasingly became a cash-crop farm with milking and silage for raising beef cattle and heifers.
Round barns were being raised in the area and throughout nearby states, yet they never accounted for more than one tenth of one percent of farm structures. In neighboring Fulton County to the west, 20 round barns were still standing in 1970, a number reduced by nature's wind and fire. Frank Aker's name boldly painted above the door rollers and track signifies the farmer's family pride in their work, the round barn's beauty and majesty come from its pure functionalism. The Depression and ensuing world war removed the romance of the family farm forever from America.
On July 10, 1991, young B.J. and Shelley Schrome, the barn's most recent owners, offered to donate the barn to Amish Acres to prevent its destruction and insure its proud survival for the benefit of future generations. A new theatre for Amish Acres five year production of the 1955 Broadway musical comedy, Plain and Fancy, was becoming necessary as the play became an institution at the historic farm. The play about Amish life and love which pivots on a barn raised by the community from ashes, made the conversion of the relocated round barn into this 360 seat theatre nearly inevitable, it was possibly meant to be.
Ivan Hochstetler, the harness maker, and his crew of Amish farmers were hired-on to dismantle the structure piece by piece. Diagrams of the barn as it stood, and its details were carefully recorded. A group of Hondurans who came to the United States for a period by Amish Mennonite missionaries, worked with the German speaking Amish. The older men cleaned the boards of nails and stacked them as they were removed. Ivan's crew first moved a barn to Amish Acres twenty-two years ago and has reconstructed four additional barns and two log houses over the last two decades.
Finally the straw shed frame was cut loose from the round barn and dismantled by crane, first the beams and perlins, then the bands. The cupola was lowered in one piece to a trailer which marked the beginning of the structural disassembly. After the wood shingles were removed and the strip sheeting was salvaged, the balloon frame was ready to come down. As the crops ripened, and the barn steadily disappeared from across the fields, another crew of Amish and Mennonite carpenters were building the new lobby to be attached to the new theatre at Amish Acres while the circular footers and foundation walls were poured to support the thirty-two ton tubular steel frame which was computer designed to suspend the old barn's structural lumber from it.
Soon the two crews were combined in a coordinated effort to begin the reconstruction process. First a new building was built encompassing the frame and was fully insulated. Then new siding was installed inside and the round barn's original studs, rafters, nailers, sheeting and cupola plus the straw shed's posts, beams, perlins and rafters were installed in the opposite sequence of the original construction. Replacement lumber is not antique so you can see the extent of the original structure's native oak.
A proscenium stage was created by adding wings on the original straw shed, 245 seats were laid out on risers in the orchestra and mezzanine with an additional 115 seats in a graceful balcony. A hard maple stage floor floats on rubber, 40 tons of conditioned air are circulated throughout the building, changing the air every 10 minutes. Stage lighting manufactured by Strand Lighting of London, England, is computer controlled, and engineered amplification makes the barn's perfect acoustics focus on the actors' performances. Beautiful replicate quilts of old Amish design are strategically hanging at the direction of an audio engineer to filter the acoustics. An ebony Steinway grand piano is the lone instrument played in the production. Blackout blinds cover the windows electrically before each show.
If this majestic Round Barn can no longer harbor domestic farm animals and their feed crops, perhaps its next best life is to entertain thousands of people from around the world through the magic of live musical theatre at Amish Acres. German immigrant Peter Aker met Margaret, his wife-to-be, on the same ship to America in 1880. Margaret was born in Berne, Switzerland in 1862. The Akers came to Indiana and settled on a farm where they had six sons and a twin sister to Edward. Peter was killed in 1906, five years later the determined pioneer mother, her seven children and Phillip Lauderman, a neighbor who was a carpenter, built the barn from native lumber. Frank, next to the youngest, purchased the farm from his mother in 1918.
From Bremen to Nappanee
November 5, 1991
When Richard Pletcher, President of Amish Acres in Nappanee, Indiana, arrived at his desk on Wednesday, July 10, 1991, in the usual pile of phone messages was a memo to call Shelley Schrome about a round barn. A return call discovered that the Schromes, B.J. and Shelley and their one-year-old daughter, Cary, owned an eighty-year- old round barn on their property in Marshall County along the Goshen-Plymouth Indian Trail near the Lake of the Woods, west of Bremen, Indiana. The Schromes had recently sold their remodeled and enlarged country house and were planning to move back to Dallas where they had previously resided. The purchaser did not want the responsibility for the aging round barn on the property and gave the Schromes the responsibility of disposing of it.
Rather than burn it to the ground with the help of the local fire department, they were interested in donating it to someone who would move the barn and relocate it for future generations. The Schromes knew of the endangered status of round barns. Fulton County, directly south of Marshall County, has more round barns than any county in America; however, its inventory of twenty of these unique rural structures has shrunk in half in the last two decades. Each year the Round Barn Festival draws thousands to enjoy the inherent beauty of the remaining structures.
The Agriculture departments of the University of Illinois and Purdue University were strong promoters of the round barn and its efficiencies during the turn of the century. So the round barn built in 1910 by Fred Aker on his farm was more than a novelty to his neighbors. Round barns raised from delicate square edged stock greatly contrasted with the heavy hand hewed timber barns of their neighbors and soon became more than efficient. Their gracefulness and self-supporting domed roofs which often rose move than 50' to the usual crowning cupola provided a soaring reminder of the beauty of man's ability to design and build such structures.
Today the barn no longer houses the herd of milk cows nor the stables of horses or the mow of hay and straw. The silo sits empty and the clay tile milk house addition has been stripped of the cream separator's working parts. As with most barns in Indiana a basketball goal is nailed to the siding ten feet off the ground. Now retired hay forks and double trees are nailed above the door as reminder of the original purpose and status of the barn.
It was over breakfast in Amish Acres restaurant Saturday morning at 7:30 that the deal was struck with the Schromes for Amish Acres to dismantle and move the barn. Monday morning consultation calls went out to Robert Holdeman, the architect from Traverse City, Michigan, who has worked with Amish Acres since its inception in 1968 creating the master plan which is still current and being followed today; to Frank Hurdis, the State Historic Preservation Officer, to Laura Thayer, historic preservation consultant; to Mary Humstone, in charge of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Barn Again program; to Todd Geiger, Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. The Nappanee Public Library put the Indiana State Library on the prowl for publications and references on round barns.
A research trip was made to Stratford, Ontario, to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Architect Holdeman and Pletcher and their wives, Jane and Susie, attended five plays in four days, took a backstage tour of the Festival Theatre and a warehouse tour of the properties and costumes. During this trip, Mike Yoder and his crew from Amish Acres were carefully measuring and diagramming the existing structure so that the architecture and engineering work could proceed without delay.
On September 11, Pletcher met with Ivan Hochstetler, an Amish harness maker, who specialized in dismantling old barns and reconstructing them, at the dining table under kerosene lantern light to discuss the project. Ivan and his ever changing crew of Amish farmer-carpenters restored Amish Acres original buildings and erected two barns and two log houses at Amish Acres over the years. Ivan had recently helped relocate another round barn at the Fulton County Museum.
Dismantling began in September, punctuated with the removable of the cupola by crane four weeks later. Siding, rafters, wall studs, and roof sheeting were all cleaned of nails on the site then banded together to be moved by truck to the new location at Amish Acres. Plans were quickly drawn, corrected and submitted to the State of Indiana for a foundation release so that excavation and foundations could be proceeding at the same time as the barn's removal.
After consideration of several possible uses for the reconstructed building the only valid use was as Amish Acres Theatre, where the sixth year production of Plain and Fancy would open May 1, 1992. Plain and Fancy is a Broadway musical play written in 1955 which opened at the Mark Hellinger theater and ran for 468 performances. Because it is set among the Amish area of Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, it fits well into the interpretation of Amish Acres historic restoration. Now Amish Acres has performed over 3,000 performances using a professional repertory company chosen from national auditions held in New York, Greensboro, Chicago, Memphis, North Carolina, St. Louis and Indianapolis. Over fifteen hundred actors and actresses are auditioned to fill the nine parts at Amish Acres for each year's six month run.
Designed to seat 375 persons on two levels and a balcony, the newly reconstructed round barn features a proscenium stage with fly space. Separate theatre lighting and sound consultants were contacted to begin designing systems for the challenging round barn space and the enlarged production of Plain and Fancy. Unique solutions were required to solve the structural and insulation requirements of a new theatre while maintaining the historic round barn's character. A novel thirty two ton steel tube framework has been computer designed by the engineers from which the original barn is virtually suspended. New studs and rafters surround the original barn encompassing the steel structure within it. The solution allows the barn to be comfortably temperature controlled.
The barn's natural acoustics come from the exposed framing lumber which will provide a baffling effect. A six foot wide connector will isolate the round barn from the new forty foot square lobby, complete with new restrooms, gallery space and bus unloading canopy constructed from the round barn's central core timbers.