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Some Treasured Old Barns Go Round and Round

There's an old American saying about people who throw a baseball or a rock or a snowball and miss their targets entirely. They throw so poorly, they couldn't hit the broad side of a barn.

But what if a barn doesn't have a broad side?

There are at least 1000 round barns across America. And they have been part of the rural landscape almost as long as European settlers have lived here. The nation's first president, George Washington, had one. So did early Massachusetts settlers from an odd religious order called Shakers. And people built them throughout the Midwest, from the 1880s through the 1920s.

Carpenters discovered that they required less stone or wood than rectangular barns, thus saving on costs. Because their roofs are supported by the one circular wall, there are no columns needed. So there's more room for livestock or hay. And Midwesterners learned that high winds — even tornadoes — that would pulverize an ordinary barn often glance off a round one.

Perhaps the most famous round barn in America is a big, red one with a green, egg-shaped roof made of cedar shingles. It was built in rural Oklahoma out of burr oak in 1898 by a farmer named Big Bill Oder. In order to bend the boards around the circular frame of the barn, he soaked them for weeks in the closest river.

Over the years the round barn was the town's favorite dance spot and one of the most-photographed buildings along old, scenic Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles.

But in the 1970s, the barn was abandoned. Slowly it began to bulge and slump to the east, until a group of citizens bought it and fixed it up. They pounded telephone poles into the ground all around the barn, wrapped heavy guy wires around them and the barn, and pulled until the old red barn was upright again. That caused the roof to collapse, but they built a new one.

This Oklahoma round barn is not exactly an eighth wonder of the world. But it's a curious-enough attraction that people still stop along old U.S. Route 66 to take photographs of one of the most distinctive farm structures left in the land.