Balloon Frame Farmhouse
Ah! Are you picturing the movie “Up!” with the house floating in air, sailing under the power of thousands of balloons?! Well, unfortunately, we are not talking about that kind of balloon home! After the first years of settlement on the prairie and hopefully after successful years of farming, families built on to existing shanties or built new balloon frame homes. The engineering of the balloon homes made them accessible to the farmer. It wasn’t unusual for the farmer to become the carpenter of his own home.
If your ancestor didn't have a sod house, they had an early shanties which were simple 10 foot by 16 foot structures with one or two rooms plus a door and a window. As the family grew and prospered, a more permanent structure was needed. Many of these homes in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin were balloon frame architecture. Let’s look at ways to include the farmhouse in your family history.
There is an interesting book devoted to balloon frame houses by Fred W. Peterson called Homes in the Heartland – Balloon Frame Farmhouses of the Upper Midwest, published by Minnesota Press. Peterson provides a comprehensive look at these homes, including the structural mechanics, interior and exterior photos and floor plans. He also provides context about what life would have been like and how these home fit into the social structure of the family and community.
Even as late as the 1970s, many of these farmhouses dotted the countryside. I noticed in my farming community that there were many homes that looked the same, followed a similar plan. Was it because they all used the same unimaginative builder? Well maybe but more likely they ordered plans or plans and materials to build somewhat like the concept of modular homes. If you’ve looked at old time catalogs of Sears, you can see ads for house plans, plus they have plenty of extras for you to purchase to complete your home.
One of my g-grandparents was born in the Dakotas and his parents helped him get settled on his own land. The first version of his home included a kitchen and living area on the first floor and two bedrooms on the second. Later another “half” of the house was added providing a dining room and formal parlor and another large bedroom and attic. Despite being built in phases, the outside of the home looks much like an L-shaped balloon frame home.
So, what can you do with this information? Look at when these changes were made from financial records, old photos or family stories. You can tie the economics of the time with when the family was able to add on to their home. Or perhaps they needed more room because of so many children! One of the things that I like to do is map out the rooms as I remembered them in the home, then get family members…aunts, uncles, parents… to review my work. This is a creates an opportunity to correct any errors in your memory and a perfect time to gather some additional stories about things that people remember about the house or what it was like when they lived there. Include photographs of how the home has changed over the years. And take it one step further and look at the layout of the farm itself. Old pictures and talking to older relatives will help you.
Don’t get hung up on your drawing ability! You can sketch out the floor plan or use your computer to make a floor plan. Seeing what the home looked like helps us imagine what it was like living there. How did two parents and ten children live in three bedrooms!?! Quite different from now when each child has a bedroom. Or maybe the dining room and family gatherings come to mind. At a recent funeral, many people mentioned how central to celebrations the large dining room was in my great-grandmother’s home.
Remember to add notes about things that may have made your family’s home unique. For example, in some areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin where Luxembourgers settled, they may have had limestone homes. This style of building was typical in the old country and where those resources where available, they tended to build that way.
Here are a few resources.
“Your Farm tells a story…how will the next chapter begin.”
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With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.