Vermont Barn Census

It is likely that the most enjoyable part of your participation in the Vermont Barn Census will be the time you spend in the field – exploring the roads of your community for barns and other evidence of Vermont’s agricultural heritage. In order to make your fieldwork as fun, informative, and rewarding as possible, here are some suggestions on good ways to go about conducting your piece of the census.

Researching the History of Agriculture in Vermont

You can get a good background on the general agricultural history of Vermont by reading A Short History of Vermont Barns [link] and looking at the Barn Census Powerpoint presentation (Click Here to open the presentation in a new window. If the presentation does not display correctly, Click Here to download the presentation as a PPT file. The file is large; 54 megabytes.) Barn design was influenced by local tradition, availability of materials, and the specific demands of different types of farming in different periods of history. With a little background you can decipher the clues that the building gives you.  Depending on your time and interest, you can also consult the Long History of Vermont Agriculture [link] and the other publications listed in the Resources section. Doing a little reading before you look at your first barn will make it easier to understand what you are looking at, how it functioned, and when it was built. The Visual Glossary [link] and Vermont Agricultural Property Types [link] give more detailed information on the whole array of historic agricultural buildings in Vermont, from corn cribs to silos, to mink sheds and potato barns.

Researching the History of Your Community

Although the majority of your time will be spent out and about, exploring the different parts of your community while looking for barns and other agricultural structures, it is worthwhile to first spend some time researching your community’s history to become familiar with the influences that shaped its agricultural past. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Historical research is a great way to really get a feel for the way your community developed and may provide clues as to what barns (either general types or specific instances) may hold special significance in your community. Historical research can answer questions such as: What crops and livestock were common in the area? At one time were there especially large or significant farming operations nearby? If so, what were their names and locations? What ethnic groups settled and farmed the area? What influences did they have on the way different agricultural structures were designed? How did agriculture cause the community to grow and change? How did technologies (like railroads and electricity) or events (like wars or the Great Depression) change agriculture in your community?

To conduct research, a good place to start is your town library or community historical society. You may want to look for county, town, or other local histories that have been published. Also interesting are historic photograph files that may have images of older farms and newspaper clipping folders that may contain historical agricultural news of the community.   Two widely available 19th century map sources, the Wallings maps and  Beers atlases, include symbols that indicate properties with buildings, including owner names.

The Division for Historic Preservation has been conducting inventories of historic buildings since the  early 1970’s. The information for two counties – Addison and Rutland- has been published in book form. Offprints of single town sections are available for free upon request, while supplies last.  Please call 828-1220 to request a copy of your town section (Only available for Addison and Rutland county towns; for more information see the 'Related Information' section of the website.) The Division’s office in Montpelier has a Resource Room with files on over 40,000 historic buildings in Vermont, and the public is welcome to visit and use the records. Copies of those records are available on CD, and the Division is working on distributing them to libraries, starting with the larger libraries in each region. Town Clerks and local libraries often have a binder with paper copies of the records for their town.  

Other sources of information can include town clerks, local historians, college and university libraries and history departments, and the Vermont Historical Society The Vermont Landscape Images Project [link] contains an on-line archive of historic photos, organized by town.  Part of the fun of historical research is playing detective – finding out who might have the type of information you’re looking for and talking with them to see how their insight applies to the questions you have. Don’t be afraid to be creative in where you look for information. When researching your community’s agricultural history, you can’t go wrong if you always keep in mind the six basic questions; who, what, when, where, why, and how.

Farmers who own or used to own the barn you are surveying  will undoubtedly be the best source of specific information about the age and evolution of the structure.  They may know dates of construction, how the barn was used and how it changed over time.  They will often know the family history of the farm, including stories that bring the history of the barn alive.

In the Field – What You’ll Need

Now that you have a better understanding of the agricultural history of your community, it’s time to get out there and find some barns! A little organization at this step can make things run very smoothly, so here are some suggestions about supplies you may need and ways to conduct your piece of the census.

First, get some good road maps of the area you’ll be surveying.  You can contact your town office or the Agency of Transportation to see what free maps are available. You can also download maps from the Vermont Center for Geographic Information website [link]. VCGI offrs a variety of maps, including maps of town highways [link]. Plan a route that covers all the roads in the area you’ve chosen.   Barn Census volunteers can work individually or in groups. If you are working in a group that  is going to split up to divide the work, each smaller group should be assigned their own sector on the map so that it’s less likely that work will be duplicated.

Next, you should gather the supplies that you’ll want to bring with you. We recommend:

  • Blank survey worksheets [link] (you’ll need one sheet for every barn you survey, so make sure to print and bring extras!)
  • A hard writing surface, like a clipboard or notebook
  • Maps
  • A digital camera
  • Pens/pencils
  • Letter of introduction [link] (Please open the file, fill in your name and print it out. You may want multiple copies)
  • A dashboard sign [link] identifying your vehicle as participating in the Vermont Barn Census
  • A copy of this manual

You may also want to bring:

  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Compass/GPS
  • Cell Phone
  • Binoculars
Contact Barn Owners

Participation in the Barn Census is voluntary, and communication with barn owners is essential. Contacting owners ahead of your visit is best.  Ask if and when you could visit the property to record information and photograph the barn(s). If you have not been able to contact an owner ahead of time, when you arrive at a property, immediately knock on the door, introduce yourself and ask if you may inventory their barn for the Barn Census. Please do not go on a property without the owner’s permission. Ideally, you can visit the barn(s) with the owner so that you can learn about the barn(s) from them.

Now that you're ready, see the 'Doing the Survey' section of the website for instructions on how to carry out your piece of the Vermont Barn Census!

Before you take to the roads to survey your area for evidence of Vermont's agricultural heritage, here are a few resources you can download to help you become familiar with the state's rich agricultural history.

(Some of the documents listed above have color images. If you do not want to print in color, adjust your printer settings accordingly.)

A Project of the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program,
and Historic Windsor’s Preservation Education Institute, Save Vermont Barns,
Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and Preservation Trust of Vermont

This project is funded by a Preserve America Grant through the National Park Service to the State of Vermont Division for Historic Preservation.