Sunday, March 26, 2017

Dr. Ryan's Round Barn

By all accounts Laurence Ryan was quite a character. Born in Seneca, IL. he was raised on a farm near what is now Johnson Sauk Trail state park. He went to Loyola university to become a doctor and trained in both Berlin and Vienna. He became a well known brain surgeon in Chicago and served as dean of the Loyola medical school. He bought bought 320 acres near his boyhood home of Kewanee to build a country getaway from this city and set about fulfilling on of his many dreams, importing Black Angus show cattle from Scotland. But he had another dream in mind to attempt. He wanted to build a Barn.

 On a recent outing I took Lil' Nick and Kimberly and we went to Kewanee to see The big round barn for ourselves.  Beginning in 1908 and finishing in 1910 at a cost of $9,600 (Almost a quarter of a million dollars in today's money!) the barn was considered state of the art at the time of its completion. It stands 61 feet high and 74 feet in diameter with a ten foot cupola on top. The center silo stands 80 feet high and is 15 feet across, capable of storing up to 250 tons of loose hay. Local legend has it that the wood for the barn was soaked overnight in a local pond to make the wood pliable enough to bend though large vats seems more likely.

There are many theories Why the barn is round instead of square. A round barn meant for easier working in feeding and maintaining the cattle, a round barn is stronger in extreme wind conditions (think Tornado) and superstition has it that the devil couldn't find a corner to hide in with a round barn. For all it's innovation however, the round barns were doomed when farm machinery became larger and the barns couldn't accommodate them.

Though Dr. Ryan died in 1939, the barn continued to be used for cattle until the late 1940's and in 1967 the estate was sold to the state which tore down all the farm buildings except the barn. In 1974 the barn had the distinction of being placed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 1984 a group of local citizens formed the Friends of the Johnson Park foundation for the express purpose of saving the barn.

I was in Geneseo a few days ago and had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Steve Christian, who provided me with some background information on the barn as he is the president of the group responsible for keeping it up. Before we met my information was this was the largest round barn in the state. After speaking to him however I learned this is actually the largest barn of this type in the Country!
The barn is now used as a museum of vintage farm equipment and is open to the public May through October. It is located about a mile inside the entrance to the Johnson Sauk Trail park and you'll see it on the left side as you approach. There's ample parking and sidewalks around the structure. So if you are ever bored it's well worth the drive.


  1. There are three round barns on the South Farms area of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This write-up explains that round barns took less lumber than rectangular ones:

    Makes sense: the ratio of perimeter to area is less for a circle than a rectangle. But, pity the poor carpenters having to fit all those angular joints!

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