I want to share with you an excellent documentary on the Amish communal practice of barn raising.
In this film by Burton Buller, a barn has recently burned down in an Amish community (which looks to be Holmes County, Ohio). He films the entire process of the barn-raising, starting at the wee hours (4:45 AM) when the first helpers are just arriving.
Interspersed with the footage are explanations by Buller of Amish beliefs and practices, as well as a lot of commentary by Amish people.
For example, the man who’s lost his barn describes the traumatic day when it burned down. He’s asked about community support. “They came out of the woodwork” he observes. “Amish, non-Amish?” he’s asked. “Yea, everybody. Oh it doesn’t matter here what you are. Not at a time like this.”
As is typical of Buller’s Amish films, there is some wonderful footage, for example of a young Amishman walking without hesitation, apparently with no fear of a misstep, along a narrow beam to take a measurement.
The film reveals many interesting details about the process of cleaning up, planning, organizing, and the actual putting-up of the barn. A committee meets the owner to help decide the steps going forward. An individual described simply as “the barn-builder” is responsible for the design of the barn.
Another man describes the type of wood used, and notes that “we had twelve sawmills cutting for that barn.” When a lot of wood is needed in a hurry, the community can tap into its expanded resources. A smaller community would not have that as ready at hand, of course, at least not all from Amish mills.
The main construction is mortise and tenon, and wooden pegs are used to hold the structure together, not nails. But we do learn that this barn has a somewhat modern twist.
Rather than fully traditional construction throughout the entire structure, this barn uses pre-built trusses, put into place by a crane (the only practical way to do it). So there we see one concession to convenience or modernity in this example. Other communities would do it in the fully traditional way.
Buller shares one thing that might surprise you: “Barn raisings are quite rare in the Amish community. Most Amish may not experience more than a few in their entire lives. So the barn raising itself becomes an event to be enjoyed by the entire Amish community.”
It’s pretty amazing how the whole process is coordinated. As another Amish speaker says: “If you were watching all day, you may or may not have been able to tell who was in charge.” The time stamps throughout the film give a sense of how impressively quickly the structure takes shape.
The women help with preparing food for hungry workers, and multiple church districts may be involved. Lunch is served at 11 AM.
Buller notes that much of the work is done by then, and fewer bodies will be needed to finish up the roof and so on, so people will begin leaving.
The barn will be ready to go, fully operational by day’s end.
This Ohio barn raising actually only takes up the first half of the film. The film then moves to another barn raising in Pennsylvania. This barn is actually built using a more modern form of construction (“stick built”).
This section of the film is just as interesting. The Ohio Amishman who had his barn replaced explains how the system of church “insurance” works for his community. He also recounts what he did on the day of the barn raising, including talking with others who had similar experiences.
We hear more about the perspective of the family who experiences the loss of a barn. “The hardest part for them is to accept the help coming in,” another man explains. “I mean they can never pay it back. And people don’t want them to pay it back.” Hundreds of people contribute their labor.
Another Amish speaker discusses how the barns burn down, and how that can make a person feel about the job. For example, sometimes barns are burnt because of arson, or children playing with fire.
Do accidents happen? They do, though are uncommon. Falls and hammer drops are culprits when accidents do occur.
So while these aren’t quite “fully traditional” barn raisings with the modern adaptions, the core concept of communal aid, and the processes and customs around the event are pretty much in the same traditional mold. I find the barn raising inspiring and something that really captures the best of Amish tradition and belief. I highly recommend watching the film in full. It is a little over 40 minutes long. Check it out here: