We’ve all picked a friend up from the airport, but how many of us would help build a friend’s house? Although we might like to think we’re that selfless, most of us could come up with a thousand excuses to get out of such an exorbitant favor. But this spirit of altruism and cooperation is at the very heart of a barn raising.
Barn raisings — also called raising bees — are a community affair, in which a barn for community member is built or rebuilt collectively, with the expectation that the favor will be returned eventually. Dozens of people are involved, allowing the structures to be completed more quickly. These days, barn raisings tend to be something of a lost art, but they were once incredibly common.
American frontier life in the 17th and 18th century demanded this type of community effort. Cut off from craftsmen and often too poor to hire them anyway, members of a colony or frontier settlement would rely on each other. Most barn raisings were completed in June or July, in between planting and harvest season. Work was typically divided by age and gender: men constructed the barn, women provided water and food, and children played and watched. Although the completed barn belonged to just one member or family of a community, there was often immense satisfaction in knowing that each had some part to play in its construction.
Barn raisings dwindled in frequency during the 19th century, as the frontier became more settled and carpenters and craftsmen were more accessible. However, some groups keep the practice alive today. The Amish, ever devoted to maintaining the traditions of the past, hold barn raisings often — no surprise there.
A well-organized Amish barn raising can take less than a day. Preparations are done in the days before, including clearing the ground and laying the foundation. On the actual day of the barn raising, leaders divide the work and oversee its execution. By sunset, the exterior of the barn will be fully finished, typically leaving the interior for the owner to handle in the following days. All in all, the whole process is incredibly efficient — check out this time-lapse video of an Amish barn raising that was completed in only ten hours.
The Amish tend to be laser-focused when it comes to barn raisings, but traditional frontier raising bees could be festive occasions. The work was hard, but the food was good and the company even better. Although much rarer today, they continue to bond the people of a community together anywhere they occur.
However, unless you have some really good friends, you’re probably better off hiring people to build your barn. But that doesn’t mean you can’t embrace the spirit of a barn raising when it comes to tackling other projects.
All you need to hold a modern barn raising is a farm project, a group of family and friends, and some yummy food (like this crostata). Put up that chicken coop or shed, finally make cider out of those apples, collect syrup, do some canning, repair those buildings, set up that fence… the list goes on. Use your imagination and make it a party. With the right folks, those projects will be completed in no time.
Of course, don’t forget to return the favor. That’s what a barn raising is all about.