Driving through Sauk County there are many of the old barns painted red. Why is that? Why not green or blue? There are numerous traditional reasons, or myths, for use of the red ocher color.
One reason put forth was so that cows could easily find their way back to the barn. However, cows cannot see the color red.
Another reason was Scandinavian farmers used red to make it look like the barns were made of brick, a sign of wealth. It was noted that, “in Pennsylvania, the Dutch settlements latched on to the custom of red bricks, red barns, red geraniums, even reddish-brown cows.”
However, early barns in New England were not painted at all, because farmers didn’t have the money for such an extravagance, and they would have been considered vulgar and showy. Many barns back then were the natural color of aged wood.
Lewis Evans wrote in 1753, “It is pretty to behold our back settlements where barns are as large as palaces, while owners live in log huts, a sign of thrifty farming.” In Europe, where many Sauk County farmers originated, barns were small and were often part of the living quarters. As they immigrated to America, they sought larger farms, and therefore the need for larger barns became a necessity.
By the 1800s, farmers sought out ways to more readily protect their farm buildings from the ravages of weather. In addition to positioning the barn to best accommodate the sunshine and winter storms and to best preserve the wooden timbers, they also began experimenting with a mixture of skimmed milk, lime, linseed oil, and red iron oxide, better known as rust. The iron oxide was obtained from locally available red clay, and linseed oil, a natural wood preservative, was obtained from the flax plant. The concoction dried quickly, was cheap, and it lasted for years. Iron oxide, or rust, was plentiful on farms, and in paint it also acted as a natural poison to fungi and prevented the growth of mold and moss on the wood. The fungi trapped moisture in the wood and promoted decay. Farmers also learned that during the winter, red paint absorbed more sunshine and kept the interior of the barn warmer.
In the spring and summer, the red barns lend a vivid contrast to the green of the countryside, and in the winter, they provide an accent of crimson to winter’s white blanket.
Red barns have become a tradition in the Midwest through the years, and still remain a colorful decorative addition to the community.